Women don't want it

Opinion | Some CEOs demand a return to office; why women leaders I know aren’t

Why some female executives are rejecting the return to office
Opinion | Some CEOs demand a return to office; why women leaders I know aren’t
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Amanda Richardson is CEO of CoderPad, a software platform for evaluating technical talent. She has extensive experience in product management and strategy, having helped to scale multiple technology startups.

I’ve seen so many CEOs and founders call for workers to return to the office, from major finance giants to certain tech companies.

Know what they tend to have in common?

They’re mostly men.

But, of course they are. Are we really surprised? Most male leaders of a certain rank and tenure have the creature comforts and daily grind of home logistics utterly taken care of. Between partners who stay home and support staff, what have they got to worry about? They really don’t have to think about it much, if at all. (I’ve always loved the “how did you get here?” questions in interviews where these fortunate ones don’t acknowledge the remarkable home foundation they stand on).

It must have been quite an adjustment for these captains of industry to actually spend a considerable amount of time at home for once during our pandemic—to deal with the noise, chaos, and demands of their littlest family members. No wonder they see the “return to office” as this refuge of peace, order, and control they can spin as “the value of in-person connection.”

Let the women speak

Know who’s not calling for a return to commutes and office work en masse? Most female leaders.

We didn’t grow up professionally with the luxury of unwavering and comprehensive home support. We didn’t expect our spouses to take the lead at home so we could lead at work. Instead, we got used to multitasking, spreading ourselves a bit too thin to do the best we could for everyone who depended on us: aging parents, children, fellow parents, partners, bosses, friends, and colleagues.

In some fundamental ways, the pandemic actually eased our collective burden: no more lengthy commutes meant more time with family or for personal pursuits; being at home meant starting dinner at a normal hour or throwing laundry in the wash between calls; being close to home for the rare emergency.

And, not for nothing, we kicked ass during that period. We kicked ass at work with high productivity and engagement. In fact, doing well remotely meant we could finally mount a credible argument for permanent flexibility.

The demand to return

Even after record profits at many companies, approximately 200 million hours saved in environmentally costly weekly commutes, and improved job satisfaction, too many teams are required to come in on either a hybrid or a full-time basis. But why?

This couldn’t be more shortsighted.

Why drive into the office to sit in a closed room alone just to be on Zoom calls because, well, so many meetings happen with peers or other companies who aren’t in your office? And then we don’t have enough closed offices to do these meetings effectively? Why be in the office at all to do the same job you can do at home? Common sense should tell us all that it’s not more productive to sit in a cube and whisper on a video conference when you could be speaking in a normal voice at your dining room table.

Leaders who tout the efficiency of the office are missing the point: it’s incredibly inefficient. From the need to commute in, to packing and repacking your stuff, to having to leave when life happens (like a doctor’s appointment for your elderly mother or school getting canceled because of Covid or a sniffle—because some schools are still sending kids home over a sniffle), or figuring out meeting logistics when 2 people are in person, and 10 are on Zoom, office life is not inherently easier or better.

In-person is important? I agree.

In-person interaction is still important—no doubt about that. At CoderPad, we still make it a priority. We just don’t do it by forcing an inefficient and undesirable system on our employees. Instead, we use concentrated sprints of time to bring people together for three to four days of focused work every quarter or so. It’s productive, fun, and allows all of us to be present for the limited time we’re there.

And, like always, good leadership continues to matter, so it’s important to think about how to engage more junior employees. That means being intentional about onboarding and coaching—for example, making it a point to ping your people and say, “Hey, sit in on this meeting with me” so they get exposure to new people and projects.

It means personal outreach, excellent listening, and actively giving regular and meaningful feedback. All of this, by the way, is true of managing employees no matter where they sit. Good leaders are visible and supportive at home or in the office, and they leverage any channel available to them to deliver that help.

Our most senior audience—our board members—have also seen a positive change from moving to a remote-first posture. Instead of having them make room in very busy schedules and fly in for an in-person meeting, they can join remotely, saving time and effort. And as a huge plus, my whole executive team can now join too, which is wonderful because they get visibility with the board and they hear feedback firsthand, unfiltered through me. This is one of the many advantages of being remote-first: you can open meetings to people who may not even be in the office, which is kind of the point.

As these CEOs calling for a full return to office know all too well, you can make an argument for almost anything. But with record profits from the past two years in hand, connective technology that continues to get better and better, employees who are well aware of their worth and unenthused about going backward, and no real data-backed need to come back in, the pressure to return to the office is looking an awful lot like what it is: control, not courage.

It’s time to lead for the era we’re in, not the era that was. And it’s time to meet all our employees—not just the men—with what is fair.