Future Tense

The Future of the Recent Flexible Work Revolution Depends on Men

A dad smiles as he works from home sitting in front of a laptop with a baby on his shoulder and a paper in his other hand
dusanpetkovic/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Before COVID-19, Mark spent years working long hours in an office arranging business travel. It pained him that, as a divorced father, he rarely saw his preteen son. The pandemic changed that. Mark was furloughed, and then his company folded, leaving him unemployed for months and giving him time to reconnect with his son. Increased pandemic unemployment insurance payments meant he could pay his bills without stress and take time to look for another good job, not just the first one he could find.

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That next job was fully digital, then hybrid for more than a year. And without a commute or long hours expected in the office, Mark could both do good work and continue to focus on his son, helping with online school, discovering his son liked cooking, or just hanging out together. “It’s been huge,” Mark said. “Not being involved with him when I really wanted to was pretty devastating.”

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Now, as COVID variants recede (despite a recent uptick in many places) and mask mandates drop, his company, like so many others, is pushing workers to come back to the workplace full time. But Mark isn’t willing to lose all he’s gained with his son. “It’s been pure quality of life,” he said. So instead of preparing to return to the office, Mark, who asked us not to use his last name, is updating his résumé and looking for a digital job with the flexibility to work from home, on his own schedule. “There’s no actual difference in what I do at home or in the office,” he said. “They just want us to be in the office to keep an eye on us. It feels like a real betrayal.”

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After decades of corporate America’s resistance to flexible, digital work, the pandemic forced what, in essence, has been a prolonged experiment in digital work. This is not just true for white-collar knowledge workers, but also tutors and those who work in call centers and some types of customer service. The result: Companies can not only survive but thrive when they fully use the tools of technology to give these workers more control in when, where, and how they work. But whether digital, flexible work will stick—and whether a new way of working for at least part of the workforce will enable people to more fairly combine work and care—is far from settled. And a lot of what happens next will depend on men.

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Survey after survey shows a mind-boggling disconnect between what mostly male bosses want—everybody back in the office like it’s 2019—and what workers want. Many of the headlines about the return to the workplace focus on gender differences: how more women than men want their jobs to retain some pandemic flexibility. But those headlines overlook the fact that a lot of men don’t want to snap back to 2019 either. And some, like Mark, are willing to walk away if given a choice.

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For instance, a new global Future Forum Pulse survey of 10,000 workers released Tuesday found that 58 percent of women, compared with 48 percent of men, said they want to work digitally, at home or elsewhere, three to five days a week. While a lower share, that’s still nearly half of the men surveyed saying they, too, want to work outside an office for most of the workweek. For parents, the scores are even higher and the gender gap even smaller: Eighty-two percent of working mothers and 80 percent of working fathers want location flexibility for at least part of the week. And the numbers have been climbing throughout the pandemic.

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The Future Forum, a research group backed by Slack, a company that provides a platform and tools for digital work, also found that as more companies call for a return to office, work-related stress and anxiety are at the highest point for both men and women since near the beginning of the pandemic. (Slack’s Future Forum surveyed 10,818 knowledge workers in five countries in early 2022. The survey was administered by a third-party firm and did not target Slack employees or customers.) Workers want a say in both where and when they work. “When we ask knowledge workers, ‘Do you want a flexible schedule?’ the answer is 95 percent yes,” Brian Elliott, Slack’s Future Forum executive leader, said. “But 65 percent of companies don’t give any form of schedule flexibility. And we find that schedule flexibility, more so than location flexibility, has a higher correlation with a worker’s probability of staying or going.”

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In fact, while the mostly male executives are calling workers back to the office, they themselves aren’t going back. Nonexecutives, the latest Pulse survey found, are more than twice as likely as their bosses to be working five days a week in the office and report more than twice as much work-related stress.

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But there might be a silver lining: disrupting the proximity bias that has long disadvantaged women and caregivers.

Research has consistently shown that business leaders have favored and rewarded workers who put in long hours of face time in the office, considering them work-devoted “ideal workers.” Managing by presence, rather than the often harder work of evaluating performance, has fueled an American overwork culture and turned work into what some researchers call a “masculinity contest” of ever longer hours.

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Because women are still expected to take primary caregiving responsibilities, they are less able to put in those long hours of physical presence. And even when men have wanted to be more involved in care, they worry they’ll suffer at work for violating ideal worker expectations. Studies on what researchers call the “flexibility stigma” show that men are often more harshly punished by managers—demoted or even fired—when they put family and care over work. So most men don’t challenge the status quo.

The fear throughout the pandemic has been that, in a post-COVID world, leaders would give lip service to flexible work, but really expect everyone to snap back to the ideal worker norms of 2019. So if women and caregivers continued to work flexibly, they’d be even further disadvantaged in a “work ghetto” for women.

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But if leaders really aren’t coming back to the office, if companies truly embrace digital and hybrid work, and if managers focus on performance and outputs instead of physical presence and inputs, and if men may truly act on their desire for flexible work, then we could be moving into an unprecedented era for the possibility of greater gender equity at both work and home.

That’s a lot of ifs, and the pressure for men to conform to ideal worker and breadwinner expectations is intense. Men have long carried the cultural expectation of “providing” for the family. A Pew Research survey found that as recently as 2017, 71 percent of Americans believed that “being able to support a family” was synonymous with being a good husband and father.

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But, as one of us, Kate Mangino, found while researching her forthcoming book Equal Partners, men’s concept of “providing” for a family is changing. Many men are now taking a broader view of that term, traditionally defined only as providing financially, to also include time caregiving. And the pandemic has accelerated this cultural shift.

As the pandemic pushed millions of fathers out of the workplace and into the home, many men were confronted with a wider range of caregiving roles and performed more unpaid care work than ever before. And when fathers were working exclusively from home, time diaries showed that both mothers and fathers spent more time caregiving, with a disproportionately large increase for fathers.

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Research we’ve done at New America’s Better Life Lab (which one of us, Brigid Schulte, directs) suggests that the experience of providing care changes men, and makes them more likely to identify as caregivers and more willing to push against the ideal worker status quo at work in order to give care. (Disclosure: New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.)

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By pushing more men into caregiving, the pandemic has also helped them see it as an important part of their identity. And they want to keep doing it. For instance, Jeremy, a data scientist, quit his job in the fall of 2021 when the uncertainty about whether and when his company would call everyone back into the office left him on edge. Instead, he found a new job that’s permanently digital. Continuing to work from home has enabled him to continue having breakfast with his children, something that became a cherished ritual only when he had time for it during the pandemic. “I used to race to drop them off at 7:30 a.m. so I could get to work at 8 a.m.,” he said. “I feel I’m able to be more engaged with my children.”

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Jeremy isn’t alone; nearly 70 percent of American fathers across race, class, and political affiliation said they felt closer to their children during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, a study conducted by Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project found. A larger number of fathers reported having “more meaningful conversations with their children, getting to know their children better … sharing more with their children about their own lives … appreciating their children more and discovering new, shared interests.”

Victor Aragon, who works in customer service, is one of those dads who feels closer to his family because of the pandemic. “I used to text my wife on the train ride home, asking how everyone’s day was. Now I am part of that day. And I love that. Instead of the kids meeting me at the door to welcome me home from work, I can be there to greet them home from school and listen to their stories. I have snacks ready, water bottles filled.”

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Men who worked essential jobs during the pandemic did not have the same opportunities to be involved in caregiving that others did. But many, too, want or are looking for a different way to work.

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Tyler Baker does administrative work at a hospital. When the pandemic began and other families were told to shelter in place, Tyler continued to go to work every day. “I was resentful of other families. I saw their pictures on Facebook. Everyone was in their homes, all cozy with PJs on, making home offices and spaces for school. Don’t get me wrong—I was happy for those people who had family time. But I wanted that for myself and my family too.”

Instead, Tyler was forced to drop his daughter at a day care set up for essential workers. “She didn’t understand why she had to go to day care when her friends could stay home. That broke my heart.”

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At the end of 2021, Tyler started looking for remote or hybrid positions that would allow him greater flexibility, but they all required a bachelor’s degree. So in January 2022, Tyler enrolled in school. He now works full time and goes to school full time—all so he can eventually spend more time with his daughter. “That is my only reason. I want to be there for her after school and I want to drive her to her extracurricular activities.”

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Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of Making Caring Common and one of the authors of the Harvard study on fathers, hopes these changes will stick throughout the culture. Some men, he said, undoubtedly will make a permanent shift. “But as we get back to ‘normal,’ the pull of the status quo and what’s familiar may be very powerful for men, too.”

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The longer the pandemic disruptions last, the more time men like Carter Rubin can spend at home, and the more the shifts are likely to last. Rubin, who works in transportation policy, worked digitally even before the pandemic, but now that he’s a father, he can’t imagine working any other way. With his wife, a schoolteacher, more tied to a workplace and inflexible schedule, Rubin has extra flexibility to support child care pickup and drop-off for their toddler son, manages pediatrician appointments, and is on hand for any emergencies. “I’m cherishing every moment I have with him,” Rubin said. “I’m grateful I don’t have to commute an hour each way to work and only see him for an hour before bed.”

For more on the pandemic, gender, and work, listen to this recent episode of the Better Life Lab podcast.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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