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The Silver Lining of Working from Home

Those of us who remain employed during this pandemic may be inding ourselves working from home more than we have ever before. Before COVID-19, working from home was a rare occurrence in most jobs, with many opponents arguing that there were too many distractions at home and that workers would be less productive.

But a silver lining from this pandemic could be that employers realize how productive their employees can be from home, sometimes even more so than from the office. If employers realize this, working parents could be able to spend more time with their children at home, leading to stronger family relationships and more all around healthy workers. So argues Dr. Angela Rachidi, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, in her recent essay “A future of work that complements family life.” Dr. Rachidi joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast.

“I think if employers start to realize that workers can do work from home […] it can actually be very beneficial for the employer and the employee,” argues Dr. Rachidi, “and especially for children when they can have their parents at home and more accessible to them.”

“It really does require a shift in culture,” continues Dr. Rachidi. “Just this recognition that people value their home time as much as they value their work time, and that people who can be productive parents will be the more productive workers. […] Because ultimately for employers, if your workers are less stressed and they feel that they’re better able to be good parents and good workers, it’s going to mean you’re going to have more productive and loyal employees that are going to benefit your business.”

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear more from Dr. Rachidi about how working from home can prove more productive for employees and employers.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: The Silver Lining of Working from Home

TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As more families are working and doing school at home these days in response to the pandemic, this might be the perfect time to reconsider workplace practices to make balancing the needs of work and family more doable. Dr. Angela Rachidi joins us today from the American Enterprise Institute where her research focuses on the relationship between employment and poverty. She recently co-authored an essay entitled “A future of work that complements family life.”

Dr. Angela Rachidi, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

DR. ANGELA RACHIDIThanks so much for having me.

TRACI GRIGGS: We should start by saying that we all understand that these are highly unusual times with so many people working from home—if they are fortunate enough to still have a job—and some also juggling distance education with their children. But what kind of new options might we discover for work-life balance from this accidental or incidental experiment.

DR. ANGELA RACHIDI: We certainly are in very unusual times. But I do hope that the struggles that many of us are going through now can kind of present some new options for people going forward. I think the main thing that would just be really nice and I would love to see if employers and employees actually realize that working from home is not only doable, but it also can be very beneficial to them, and also to their children. And when I say that, it really comes from a place of personal experience. I mean I spent about 15 years working from an office, but over the last five I’ve had the chance to work from home. I think initially I was pretty reluctant to do that because of all the reasons you might think, around productivity and just how that actually works. But I actually found, and I maybe never would have guessed this, but it actually made the transition to being a more productive worker even easier. And I think if employers start to realize that workers can do work from home and they actually can be more productive in the sense that they’re not commuting, they maybe aren’t getting distractions at work, that it can actually be very beneficial for the employer and the employee, and especially for children when they can have their parents at home and more accessible to them.

TRACI GRIGGS: You know, it is very interesting because that’s one of the arguments against people working from home is all the distractions. But boy, don’t we have our distractions in the office as well?

DR. ANGELA RACHIDI: Oh, it’s very true. And I’m not sure people really realize that until they can kind of get away from their office. There’s actually been quite a bit of research on this because of some of the concerns around productivity when people do work from home. But it’s true that these studies have actually found that there are many more distractions in the office, and I think anybody that’s worked in an office can start to relate to that once they realize it. Like think of all the times that you have discussions not really related to work because you’re running into people or they’re coming into your office, or even just when you’re having a meeting in an office setting. You have a lot of idle chit chat that you just don’t have when you are working remotely. And then it’s also just this idea of balancing your personal time with your work time. If you have some other demands on your time related to family and things, you are just more focused and more productive in your work time because you know that you need to get to that other time.

TRACI GRIGGS: Right, and I think productive people are going to be productive wherever they are. And unproductive people are going to find ways to not be productive no matter where they are. So, let’s talk about your research, what have you found as far as some common themes among Americans who are concerned about the imbalance between their work and family responsibilities?

DR. ANGELA RACHIDI: Sure. We have quite a lot of survey data on how parents feel when it comes to balancing work and family life. And really most of it points in one direction. And I’m sure parents who are listeners can relate to this; the surveys show us that parents feel overextended and oftentimes the kids are the ones who suffer. We have quite a bit of data from like the Pew Center, who does a lot of national polling. And so things like roughly half of mothers and fathers report that they do not spend enough time with their kids. And these are mothers and fathers who report working full time, they say they don’t have enough time with their kids. It’s particularly a feeling among mothers with young children. We have research that shows that mothers of young children not only report that they don’t have enough time, but they feel particularly stressed in the sense that they don’t feel the opportunities to advance in their careers, and they also report feeling rather inadequate in terms of being a parent.

And so if you start to play that out, you think about how mothers either have to spend less time with their kids because they want to advance in their careers—and it’s not just about a personal advancement, it’s also about providing monetarily for their families if they’re able to advance in their career—or they have to make the decision to pull back in their career and earn less money, which then can also affect kids. So it really puts mothers in particular in a pretty precarious situation. And if you think about it really holistically and all of those scenarios, the kids really are the ones who kind of get the short straw because they either don’t have as much time with their parents, or the parent has to reduce their income because they’re not able to work. I think a lot of the data suggests that that work-family balance is really difficult for families, especially those with young children. And we hear the same beliefs and feelings and perspective across all of these various surveys.

TRACI GRIGGS: What do you think employers might be learning from this time when so many people are having to work remotely?

DR. ANGELA RACHIDI: I really hope that employers are learning that employees can still be productive workers even when they’re at home, and that sometimes they can even be more productive when they’re at home. To be honest, working from home and things like that, it’s not the perfect fit for everybody, but I think that employers sometimes automatically assume that it’s not going to work for most people and that most people won’t be able to be as productive of a worker. I think that going through this period now and having people kind of be forced into it, it might make employers realize that some of those concerns are a little bit misplaced. I also hope that employers start to see their workers as parents a little bit more, and see that parents who are concerned and stressed about their inadequacies as parents and as workers, they start to see that parents are experiencing that and that maybe if they’re more aware of that, they can start to think about strategies and policies they can put in place to take away some of that stress. Because ultimately for employers, if your workers are less stressed and they feel that they’re better able to be good parents and good workers, it’s going to mean you’re going to have more productive and loyal employees that are going to benefit your business.

TRACI GRIGGS: You mentioned the ability to work from home or have flexible work schedules doesn’t work for everybody. It can often be considered a luxury or perhaps reserved for a certain income level. Is it possible do you think, to begin to offer this option to lower-income folks who really might need these options more urgently?

DR. ANGELA RACHIDI: I do think it is. I mean, yes, obviously historically it has been kind of a luxury in terms of working from home, or even having a flexible schedule for higher-educated or higher-income families. But I don’t necessarily think it has to be and I hope that one of maybe the positive aspects of this crisis again is to help employers and employees across the spectrum of types of jobs and income level and things like that start to realize that working from home, or even just having a more flexible kind of balance of home and family life can be a reality for more workers. And it also is true, like you said, that some jobs just don’t lend themselves for working from home. But if you think about people like retail store managers or hairstylists: yes, they likely will never be able to truly work from home. But I think that lends itself to more ideas and thoughts around just adding flexibility into the scheduling. If employers recognize the needs for their workers to also be parents, then they can make sure that they have strategies around flexibility. And that might just mean that parents can leave a little early so they can be home when their children get home from school, and then maybe fit their work schedule around a school schedule for example. And again, I think that once employers realize that maybe that’s doable, and potentially this crisis kind of gets them to that place, it might be something that they could put in place in more of a long-term fashion.

TRACI GRIGGS: Many of us were surprised, least I was at the number of students who were not able to participate in distance education because either they didn’t have a computer at home or some many didn’t even have internet access. Do you think that one of the ways that we can make working from home more accessible to lower-income folks may be just some simple providing training, perhaps providing a laptop?

DR. ANGELA RACHIDI: Yes, there’s many efforts across the country in providing Wi-Fi access, like public Wi-Fi access for example, so that you can cover low-income families and cover where they live. I certainly support those types of efforts, and many of those efforts actually are generated by the private sector as well. Then I think the private sector recognizes that connecting people is good for their business as well, obviously, which you can see how that plays out. So, I think that there should be an effort to really make sure that low-income families are connected. We do have a lot of survey data to suggest that the issue around access sometimes is less about income and it’s a little bit more about geography. You have low-income families who live in rural areas, for example, have lower rates of connectedness and access to computers than families in urban areas. And that’s mostly because if you think about it, urban areas have public access like libraries and things like that that families can access, and even coffee shops and things that offer free access. And we know from survey data, again that a lot of even low-income families have devices, they have smart phones, they have laptops, and so I think you can’t generalize that all low-income families aren’t connected. But that certainly means that we need some efforts to connect those families who aren’t connected.

TRACI GRIGGS: So what concrete policy options do you think should be considered to help with transitioning employer and government expectations to reflect the change in family dynamics that we’ve seen with two-parent working families, a lot of single-parent families?

DR. ANGELA RACHIDI: So, the government certainly can play a role. I think there’s some role for the government to provide paid leave for example, or at least to provide some access to paid leave. But I actually, to be honest, think that much of this requires efforts from the private sector. It really does require a shift in culture, and many of the things that I mentioned earlier, just this recognition that people value their home time as much as they value their work time, and that people who can be productive parents will be the more productive workers. I think things at the employer level need to happen. So there needs to be policies put in place that not only allow flexibility and allow work from home, but also policies that kind of change the culture that people who take advantage of those policies are not penalized. And I think that’s the real fear that some parents have is even if their employer offers policies that do try to balance out the work-family challenges. Oftentimes employees, workers, they feel like if they take advantage of those that they somehow are going to look as if they’re not as dedicated, or not as loyal, or not as productive as other workers, so they don’t take advantage of it. I think that kind of culture needs to shift and I think that it does come from the top. So that means employers, executives, they need to set examples in how people can balance both their work and family life and need to make it clear that just being visible and being in your chair in the office doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re being a productive worker. That they have to start changing how people are evaluated in terms of their work and what the employer values.

TRACI GRIGGS: Very interesting. Well, we’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go, Dr. Rachidi, where can our listeners go to not only access this essay that we mentioned at the top of the interview, but also to look at some of your work? I did, and you have some very interesting research and articles on joblessness and addressing poverty. Where can we go to find out more?

DR. ANGELA RACHIDI: The Institute for Family Studies is where I posted the piece that we were talking about today, and they have a lot of great resources on American working families and the balance between family and work life, that families face. So that’s one area. And then I am a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and so I would encourage your listeners to go to AEI’s website. They can search for me as a scholar and on my scholar page it lists all of my writings. As you mentioned, I focus mostly on low-income families, and safety-net programs for low-income families. And all of those resources can be found there.

TRACI GRIGGS: Traci Griggs: Well, Dr. Angela Rachidi, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.

DR. ANGELA RACHIDI: Great. Thank you for having me.

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