Aug 10, 2021 - Economy

Office politics move into the home

Illustration of an office cubicle with a roof like a house.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

As the pandemic drags on — keeping millions of Americans teleworking, and countless students studying remotely — the tense dynamics once confined to the office have infiltrated people's houses and apartments.

Why it matters: Families are haggling over who gets prime workspace. Should it be the biggest breadwinner? In many homes, women are the ones who get stuck with less-than-ideal offices.

The big picture: The pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to working women — with nearly 2 million dropping out of the labor force, in many cases because they were disproportionately saddled with housework and child care duties.

  • The lack of access to office space is yet another hurdle making the pandemic harder for female workers.

"Women have become nomads," says Liz Patton, a professor of media and communication studies at UMBC and the author of "Easy Living: The Rise of the Home Office."

  • "There have always been spaces in the home that have been masculinized, like garages and basements and home offices," she says. "We already have ideas about who these spaces belong to, and so we default."
  • Most homes only have one office and limited places for quiet work. While men have set up shop in those spaces, women are wandering between the kitchen and the living room, with their laptops on one hand.
  • On top of that, women are often interrupted throughout the workday as they juggle work with other responsibilities like cooking or helping kids with homework.

What they're saying: "I threw out my neck working at the kitchen table on my laptop," says Lauren F., who works as a freelance marketing consultant. "My higher-earning male spouse took over my home office. It’s also summer, still no school. Which of us is called on to blow off work and prioritize the children?"

  • "All to say, my work suffered," she says. She eventually decided to stop working until the pandemic situation gets better. "I feel like I disappointed my client, and as a freelancer, I didn’t like risking my reputation like that."
  • But there's no end in sight. School reopening plans may be foiled by the Delta variant, and Lauren's husband's return-to-work date has been pushed back indefinitely.

What's next: With remote and hybrid work becoming the norm, firms will have to put more cash behind setting up home offices for all workers if they want to recruit and retain them as well as keep productivity up.

  • For workers with enough space for multiple offices in their houses, that might mean handing out company stipends for desks, chairs and monitors. For those without space, that could mean providing memberships to co-working spaces.
  • Companies also risk losing working parents if they don't offer flexibility or money for child care, as many people, especially women, can't effectively work from home due to kid responsibilities.
  • "Just like you have a right to space to work in the office when you sign a contract, we need that at home," says Patton.
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