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Women Returning to the Office—or Not

Updated: May 27

As well-meaning companies offer employees flexibility about returning to the office or working from home, so far, results show that men are choosing the office in larger numbers while more women opt to work from home. This makes sense, given that women in heterosexual couples generally tend to bear more household and childcare responsibilities than their partners, and working from home makes those tasks much easier. In fact, a recent study of senior leaders revealed that 69% of women, compared to only 56% of men, want to WFH one day a week—or more. Additionally, more women than men considered this as such a high priority that they would consider quitting their jobs if they’re not able to work from home at least sometimes. So giving people a choice is great, right? Yes. But there are hidden pitfalls to watch out for.

1. The proximity price

Studies show that people who are physically in the office tend to be more in the loop. They meet at the proverbial water cooler to hear about company news first, they socialize and network more and have a greater sense of belonging to the team. This can affect job satisfaction.

2. Proximity bias

People at the office are generally seen more often by senior leadership. The Familiarity Principle in social psychology shows us that people tend to look more favorably upon those they see more often. This means people in the proximity of leadership (i.e. in the office) often make a stronger impression and are better liked, regardless of job performance. So gender inequity in returning to the office has the potential to result in the same inequity in career advancement: recognition, promotion and pay increases.

3. Navigating virtual meetings

In virtual meetings, women are less likely than men to speak up. Many women have said they feel awkward chiming in, and have felt spoken over or dismissed during various types of video meetings. Last year, Google, which has a policy of self-nomination for promotions, found that fewer female engineers were nominating themselves than their male counterparts. (Disclosure: I regularly coach executives at Google.)

4. Fewer women in offices

As offices become disproportionately populated by men, women in the workplace may feel excluded in their work environments. There is a long history of this dynamic, and while much progress has been made in recent years, it can easily be erased by unfavorable circumstances.

5. Moving backwards

A greater percentage of men at the office and women at home could cause workplace cultures to revert back to the old stereotypes of women belonging at home and men belonging at the office, along with the unconscious bias of men deserving better pay because they are the head of the household.

Here are some solutions to explore:

1. Rotate with a partner

Couples could consider alternating days at the office and at home, and divide household/childcare responsibilities more evenly.

2. Promote awareness

Bring the notion of Proximity Bias out into the open—make sure leaders are aware of this principle and gently challenge this bias when you see it. Examine data to see if your organization really does provide the same opportunities for WFH team members. Do not allow the office to have the feel of an exclusive members-only club.

Pro tip: You’ll get a far better response if you speak about this bias as a natural human tendency, with as little accusation as possible.

3. Proactive inclusion

Make sure team leaders and senior leadership put forth a concerted effort to include remote team members. For example, reaching out proactively for check-ins, addressing WFH issues and ensuring WFH employees are included in invitations to participate in projects.

4. Mix and match

Resist the temptation to assign people to the same teams because they are all in-person or all remote. Instead, mix and match. You may even get more diverse perspectives that way.

5. Gather round

Consider parameters or events that bring remote workers into the office at specific times, together. When they arrive, be proactive about connecting on a personal level, and making sure they know they are appreciated and seen.


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