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Remote work should empower people. Newfound flexibility in location and hours should lead to greater gains in productivity, work-life balance, and happiness.

Last year, the potential benefits of remote work became muddled by the challenges of a global pandemic. Instead of enjoying newfound freedom and opportunity, we learned how vulnerable working women are in times of crisis. The pandemic uncovered all the weaknesses in womens’ spaces in the economy and at home. As a result, a move to remote work that should have provided a leap forward for women around the world instead put a new obstacle in their path.

This is not how it’s supposed to be. Remote work offers enormous upside to women at work. As the pandemic ends and we embrace a new era of flexibility and empowerment, women will finally realize the advantages they should have enjoyed all along.

As an executive at Remote and a mother myself, I have long been an advocate for the benefits remote work can bring to women in the workplace. Working remotely has provided me the flexibility to lead Remote’s growth efforts, run my own business, care for my family, and enjoy my life. I was even able to move back to my home country of Italy to be closer to my parents. My newfound freedom made me more balanced, stronger, and more empowered to pursue better outcomes for myself and my family.

Consequences of the pandemic for women at work

Unfortunately, women paid a greater price than men for the economic downturn of 2020. From October 2019 to October 2020, 2.2 million women left the labor force in the US alone. While the hardships of the pandemic affected everyone, women with children left or lost their jobs at a significantly higher rate than men with children. Women of color lost many of the gains they made in the workplace, seemingly overnight.

Women without children left the workforce at a lower rate, but they still left more often than men. For childless men and women, three women left for every two men. Some of the difference has to do with the sectors in which women traditionally work, but that only tells part of the story. The gap remains significant.

Even investments in women’s businesses, which were already extremely low, fell even lower. Women-led companies in the US received only 2.3% of all VC money in 2020, a drop from 2.8% in 2019. While the world fought a new threat, women took the greatest casualties.

In normal times, remote work is much more than an emergency response to a crisis. We have so much damage to undo, but our opportunities to rebuild are even greater.

Remote work will change the world permanently for the better. That said, the last year has shown me we still have a long way to go to realize the true advantages of (and create awareness around) a remote-first work-life balance.

Real advantages of remote work for women

Without a pandemic forcing the world indoors, the ability to work remotely provides a bounty of benefits to women. Evolving beyond the office can’t fix everything wrong with women’s experiences at work, but it does have its advantages.

Time, for example, becomes much easier to manage. When you don’t have to worry about beating rush hour, you can focus more on work and less on all the little headaches that surround it.

Last year, that didn’t happen. Instead, schools shut down, putting an even greater burden of unpaid care on women who shoulder more than their share. Companies clumsily tried to replicate physical offices with digital tools. Rather than enjoy new perks, many women found themselves brought to the brink by stress and hardship.

Even for women without children, remote work in the real world looks nothing like what happened in 2020. Normally, people can get out of the house to visit coworking spaces, hit the gym, or meet friends for lunch. Had the world shifted to remote work without the ever-present threat of a virus, the experience would have been much different.

Pushing for positive change through remote work

Women deserve better tools and opportunities to pursue their visions for their lives, at work and beyond. We cannot let this opportunity for progress slip.

The world has gone remote, and it will never go back to the way it was before. Rather than associate remote work with the challenges of a pandemic, we should use this opportunity to create more equitable working conditions for all.

What needs to happen to make that a reality? We spoke to several women featured in The 2021 Remote Influencer Report to get their thoughts on the future of women and remote work.

Leaders should judge by outcomes, not hours.

At Remote, we often talk about the importance of asynchronous work. Why should hours matter when bottom lines reflect work completed, not the time spent doing it? Working asynchronously allows women to bring their whole selves to work at the times that work best for them.

“Women can benefit from remote working options when their bosses focus on outcomes, not facetime, and are purposeful in valuing everyone’s contributions and promoting every team member equitably, wherever they are working from,” says Sophie Wade, author of Embracing Progress. “Leaders also do not make personal judgments about a perceived lack of singular focus on professional ambition, but support people — including women — who want to achieve success in their professional and personal lives.”

Companies universally do better when they focus less on hours and more on results achieved. For women, who are often disproportionately responsible for tasks related to home life, prioritizing results over time provides much-needed flexibility.

“In the middle of the biggest remote work experiment of our time, more and more companies are finally realizing that effectiveness can’t be measured by the number of hours people spend in an office, but rather, on the quality of the work they deliver,” says Sarah Aviram, a prominent speaker on remote work topics.

Businesses must create more proactively inclusive policies.

Allowing employees to work remotely does not make a company remote-first.

“Policy and expectation have not changed enough to make remote working inclusive for all, and especially for working mothers and single parents,” says Monica Kang, founder and CEO of InnovatorsBox. “They have had to take on extra parenting, child care, as well as management care...It's really key to think about the nuances instead of generalizing what is working well or not.”

Anyone who is responsible for designing remote work policies must do so with inclusivity in mind. Unconscious biases are easy to overlook in remote environments, so managers and leaders should take special care to create policies that bring these issues to light.

“Unsurprisingly, different women have different needs,” says Sheree Atcheson, author of Demanding More. “The ability to pivot into remote work easily is one of privilege. If you have the space, the financial ability, the existence (or lack) of caring responsibilities, and so on. We must be deliberate and purposeful in creating remote work environments that work for everyone."

Self-reflection is necessary to prevent bias, but so are written policies. Even something as simple as encouraging people to turn off their video during Zoom calls (or hosting Zoom-free days) can make life easier for more people at work. At Remote, we also host self-care days once per quarter, in addition to our mandatory minimum PTO, to encourage people to step away from work to care for themselves.

Companies need to expect a second wave of changes.

Real remote work offers freedoms that pandemic remote work has denied us. Businesses should be ready for a second wave of changes once people are free to move again.

“Remote is an opportunity,” says Ester Martinez, CEO of People Matters. “Like all opportunities, it requires a mindset of possibilities...It is a great opportunity for employers to ride on the elements of trust, accountability, and responsibility, to have access to a global talent pool of diverse talent.”

Women have already begun to return to the workforce. Those who recognize the potential of remote work without the stresses of a pandemic will not allow a return to the status quo.

For employers, the choice is clear. Either create more equitable remote work options through practices like asynchronous work and outcome-based performance measurement, or watch your best talent, women and otherwise, gravitate toward companies with more more forward-thinking policies.

Although the last year has been especially hard for women at work, the future promises not a return to normalcy but an acceleration toward equity. The era of remote work began with several blunders, yet new capabilities will give women more options and stronger voices. To make this new era a reality, however, we must recognize the shortcomings of remote work in 2020 and do better in 2021 and the years to come.