Celebrating National Women’s Small Business Month . . .  Is Remote Work Good for Your Business? Is It Good for Women?

Is remote work good for your business? Is it good for women?Extensive research makes clear that greater gender diversity in leadership fuels stronger bottom-line performance. Similarly, the rise of women-owned businesses (growing twice as fast as all businesses according to the American Express State of Women-Owned Businesses Report) helps fuel the economy while benefitting families and communities. That’s something to celebrate during National Women’s Small Business Month and throughout the year.

One way to support the continued growth of women in the workforce is with greater flexibility and support to help them juggle the role of breadwinner with those of caregiver and homemaker that research shows still disproportionally fall to women. But is the surge in remote work really the big plus for women we often assume it is? And is it right for you and your business?

Everyone wants options

Forced into experimenting with remote work due to the pandemic, many employers have not experienced the downsides they feared and instead have seen productivity increases, less absenteeism and greater employee satisfaction. Employees also have sent resounding messages that they want remote work options to continue.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 1,200 office workers in the U.S. found that 72% wanted to continue working from home at least two days a week and about a third wanted to work from home permanently. In a survey by theSkimm, nearly two-thirds of millennial women respondents said they view remote work as a priority and 22% said they would no longer consider working for an employer if working from home was not an option.

Are remote workers right for your business?

Those numbers can be intimidating to small business owners striving to compete for talent in a labor pool that increasingly demands technology solutions to untether them from a physical workplace. Although hiring remote workers can potentially drive cost savings and efficiencies, managing a remote team can also turn your business into a 24/7 endeavor, especially with team members located across the country or around the world.

Consider these questions to evaluate whether a long-term commitment to remote work is a good fit for your business.

  1. Is the type of work well suited to remote performance? In roles with tangible output (number of customer calls answered; teaching hours logged; documents translated etc.) managing remote workers can be fairly straight forward. Proceed cautiously though with jobs that are harder to measure and to ensure you don’t lose the high-touch experiences that may set your business apart from big companies.
  2. Is the talent readily available locally? If your business is located in a rural area where certain skillsets are scarce, or if you’re in an expensive area struggling to compete with top companies for local talent, it may make sense to cast your net further afield. Connecting with freelancers in other areas can help you recruit key talent not available in your area or at more favorable wage costs.
  3. Do you have the management savvy to lead remote workers? Highly motivated, experienced self-starters can thrive in remote work settings with greater independence. More junior team members, those easily sidetracked and individuals with lower motivation may need far more intervention to keep them engaged if they are not on site. Be candid with yourself to determine whether you can be an effective remote leader, making assignments and expectations very clear, following up regularly and allowing greater independence for how work gets done as long as it is done.
  4. Will it be good for female team members? In their Harvard Business Review article, “Why WFH Isn’t Necessarily Good for Women,” a team of business experts and academics that included the former Prime Minister of Australia, Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup and a Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School warn that several aspects of remote work can be particularly difficult for women. They include more work/family conflict and decreased access to informal information networks and critical assignments.

Previous studies have shown that company practices designed to increase flexibility and provide greater work/life balance often just result in employees working more and shrinking the separation between home and work. That’s especially true for men (with or without children) and for professional women without children. But professional women with children, the data show, often cannot meet that “always on” ethos of remote work. A “flexible” workday with no end can backfire for women already carrying the lion’s share at home.

If women take advantage of remote work options more often than their male counterparts, gender-based inequality around access to informal networks and coaching may also widen. Working from home can create an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality when some colleagues are physically present and others are only seen on Zoom calls.

The growth of women-owned businesses and advancement of more women into senior leadership are key to robust economic growth, but ensuring their success requires workplace policies and practices that actually work for women. Remote work can be part of the talent solution for small businesses and for women leaders, as long as its challenges are also clearly addressed.