Enough with the RTO mandates. Let women rewrite the rulebook

Is it possible to find the right work-life balance? Yes, if we let women rewrite the rules, says The Sway Effect’s Jennifer Risi.

(Photo credit: Getty Images).

One of the big questions being asked right now is “are you team office or team remote?” That’s a question I never thought would cause heated debates at dinner and boardroom tables across the country. Prior to the pandemic, I probably worked from home a handful of times and it appears that I’m not alone: according to Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economics professor, who studies work-from-home policies, about 2% of Americans worked from home full-time pre-pandemic compared to almost 50% at the height of the pandemic. As of May 2023, that number was back down to less than 10%. 

It’s becoming increasingly unpopular to admit that you like to work in the office. Unsurprising given the “war on WFH that we find ourselves in, but like most things, this is not black and white. There is a fuzzy gray area that many people find themselves defending, especially women. During the pandemic, women’s participation in the workplace reached an all-time high, and the gender pay gap reached a record low. By early 2023, 75% of American mothers were working at least part-time. 

However, this increase is due in large part to benefits like in-person childcare and remote work. When you remove these benefits, mothers are faced with not only tough decisions but unnecessary stress and frustration. Did we really come all this way just to reverse our progress? The facts are there: most women find remote work conducive to a better work-life balance, reporting being happier, less stressed and showing a lower propensity to quit their jobs. 

A top-down approach: A harmful attempt at balance  

A year ago, companies were “considering” return to office policies. Now, companies like JPMorgan Chase, Meta and now Publicis Groupe are insisting that employees work in the office two to three days a week. 

This month, Publicis’ global employees were told that as of January 1, they will be required to return to the office three days a week, Mondays are mandatory and there will be no consecutive remote working days. 

Even in the best-case scenario, where every single employee’s wants and needs were taken into consideration, this is still the wrong approach to RTO. The list of reasons why is long but here are two that are important for all leaders to consider: women are more likely to be caregivers and require greater flexibility in the workplace, and rigid RTO policies mean female senior leaders will leave. If they leave, it will have a knock-on effect across the business. 

According to a recent Deloitte study, female leaders with caregiving responsibilities are 1.3 times more likely to quit if their remote work options are rescinded. That same study also found that almost half (45%) of the women in senior leadership roles polled are considering leaving their employer within the next year. If females in senior leadership roles leave, it does three things that harm a business: it means less diversity, it means less creativity and unique perspectives and it means fewer opportunities for future female leaders to have role models. 

At the risk of repeating myself, did we really come all this way just to reverse our progress? Is it possible to find the right balance? Yes, if we let women rewrite the rules. 

Working in the gray area and rewriting our RTO rules 

When I launched The Sway Effect in July 2019, I always envisioned an in-office culture. I didn't know anything else. But, when the pandemic happened mere months later, we shifted and learned we could work from anywhere, and build a team from anywhere. Today, my team is growing and thriving because we found a way that works for all of us. Here are three key things that we included in our RTO rulebook and I encourage all leaders to consider the long-term benefits that come with this approach. 

Hire the right talent: Whether you have five or 500 employees, it’s to your benefit, as an employer, to take advantage of the growing, diverse talent pool that exists throughout the U.S. You might have a great on-site team, but why not consider candidates outside your base as we did? If you don’t, you might miss out on some talent. 

Create a schedule that works: When it was safe to go back to pre-pandemic working environments, I didn’t mandate that my team work in the office a certain number of days. I invited them to decide what worked best. The result: they chose to come into the office three days a week. Bottom line: remove rigid requirements and you’ll find the right flow. 

Establish ongoing check-ins: It’s true that remote workers often miss out on the culture and in-person training that your on-site employees enjoy and experience. With my senior team, I hold quarterly meetings to ensure they have the feedback and I’m giving them opportunities to grow. 

This week, advertising, marketing, media and technology leaders are coming together at Advertising Week New York, and I will be moderating a panel at the Female Quotient’s Equality Lounge on this very topic. I encourage leaders to throw out the rule book and co-create an environment with your teams that makes sense for them and your clients. The result will be better work, and more importantly, women who are happy, healthy and heard. And this is a win-win for everyone.

Jennifer Risi is founder and president of The Sway Effect. 

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