As offices begin to reopen, some women are setting new physical, emotional and cultural boundaries.
— Ellen Ernst Kossek, a professor at Purdue University, studying work-life boundaries
By Raksha Vasudevan
When Janie Sayavong’s office reopened at full capacity in June, she was clear on what she would do to feel safe: wear a mask “the entire time,” she said.
“I am comfortable with my own ability to say, ‘Hey, I really prefer you wear a mask,’” said Ms. Sayavong, who works in human resources at a Denver-based oil and gas company. “And if others say they’re vaccinated, that’s great. But I don’t know if we can transmit so I’m going to ask you to wear a mask, and I’m very fine with that potential backlash.” So far, her colleagues have been supportive.
As Covid surges across the United States, employers are once more struggling to balance the safety of their workers with cultures built around the physical workplace. This has resulted in a shifting patchwork of fully in-person, fully remote and hybrid models.
But just as women bore the professional and personal brunt of the first wave of office and school closures, they are likely to do so again, on top of what is shaping up to be another uncertain school year. However, after nearly two years of the coronavirus pandemic, one thing is clear: Women are setting their own physical, emotional and cultural boundaries between work and life.
Perhaps the most striking example of this comes from South Carolina, where the A.C.L.U. and Deborah Mihal, the director of disability services at a public university, filed a discrimination lawsuit in April against the governor for mandating that all nonessential state employees return to the office full time with just a few weeks’ notice. Ms. Mihal, the lead plaintiff, did not have child care for her 9-year-old son, and she worried that whatever option she could find on short notice would increase his risk of exposure to the virus.
“The governor’s order forces me to choose between protecting the safety of my family and a paycheck,” she said in an A.C.L.U. statement. The suit argues that the executive order discriminates against women, who disproportionately bear caregiving responsibilities, as well as people with disabilities or those who are immunocompromised.
Since then, Ms. Mihal’s employer, the College of Charleston, has granted her an accommodation to continue working from home and the A.C.L.U. has had to dismiss its original lawsuit. However, fearing that other state agencies might not grant similar accommodations to eligible employees, the A.C.L.U. has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint argues that the governor’s order still disproportionately harms women, people with disabilities, caregivers and Black people. It asks the E.E.O.C. to carry out a thorough investigation of how the order has been implemented.
Ms. Sayavong, who is recovering from cancer, falls into the category of high-risk women with care-taking responsibilities: She has aging parents as well as young children. But she, like many others whose employers are still following a hybrid model, is already setting new rules for how and when she will work.
“I still have no intention of going back to, like Monday through Friday, 8 to 5. I think that ship has sailed for me,” she said. She has no desire to structure her workday around drop-off and pickup times for her children, nor does she miss the stress of running late to the office and having to pull over while driving to take a conference call.
Kristen Surya, a New York-based lawyer in the music industry, is also determined to protect her energy when she returns to the office. As an introvert, she finds the highly social atmosphere of a record label draining at times.
“People love coming and talking to you,” she said. “It’s very social in a way that, like, makes me die inside,” she joked. Her office’s initial reopening date of early September has now been postponed indefinitely because of the Delta variant. But Ms. Surya is already thinking about the boundaries she will need to set when the office does reopen. “If I feel like I want to leave at some point in the day, I’m just going to have to let myself do that,” she said.
Ellen Ernst Kossek, a professor at Purdue University who is studying work-life boundaries and career equality, says that while employers still hold a lot of power, workers also need to create the post-pandemic workplace they want.
She advises workers to have conversations with their managers about the flexibility they really need and how that will affect their performance. But she also warns: Offering more remote work options and flexible hours in a culture that still expects employees to overwork may actually do more harm than good, contributing to a greater erosion of boundaries between work and personal life. The pandemic has confirmed this: Instead of using time spent on commutes, breaks and socializing at work to rest, most people simply worked more.
A recent survey also found that 39 percent of women fear that taking advantage of flexible work arrangements will negatively affect their career growth — with Black and Latinx women the most concerned. Other research points to some reasons, namely the fear that not having a physical presence will result in being passed over for promotions and decrease women’s influence and informal interactions with decision makers.
Suzi Kang, a quality assurance engineer based in Lincoln, Neb., was given the option to telework at the beginning of the pandemic. But she was very aware of the trade-offs. On one hand, she worried that remote work would make it harder for her to build relationships, especially as someone who started her job only three months before Covid. On the other hand, she often felt like an outsider — as someone who identifies as Asian in an industry dominated by white men. In the end, she decided the trade-off was worth it. “It does help to not have to put on a different persona for work,” she said.
But some women are using the blurring of personal and professional life to share more about their identity and life outside of work. In her research, Dr. Kossek has seen women being more frank with their employers about their family’s needs, or intentionally letting colleagues see markers of their political beliefs, like a picture of Malcolm X or L.G.B.T.Q. posters, on video calls.
“Some of the women, particularly those that felt a little more job secure, just revealed and said, ‘I don’t care. For eight years I’m tired of hiding. We’ve got to change,’” she said.
This could also lead to more workplace bonds built out of shared identity. A number of women reported coming together with colleagues who shared race, gender or other identity markers to support one another over a difficult year, and to set boundaries with employers on what they need to feel safe and productive at work.
“After the Atlanta shooting, that for me was a real heightened time of concern and worry and feeling invisibilized,” said Nimol Hen, who works in academic advising at a Colorado university and identifies as Cambodian American. But the tragedy also mobilized the BIPOC and A.A.P.I. community at work, because they were expected to just sort of soldier on like nothing had happened, she said.
Since then, BIPOC staff and faculty members at her institution have formed an affinity group. So far, the group has advocated with university leadership to officially condemn the anti-Asian violence in Atlanta and to take the physical safety concerns of A.A.P.I. into account in making back-to-campus plans.
Dr. Kossek said asking for changes at the workplace as a group is a good strategy. “It’s easier to say no to one person,” she said. But if a team or even two colleagues ask for something — a more flexible schedule or not to be expected to answer emails after a certain hour — employers are likely to consider the request more seriously.
She also warns that as teams try new modes of working, some misunderstandings are inevitable. “It’s trial and error,” she said. But she believes the attention is long overdue. “We have been acculturated to put work first. And there’s nothing wrong with loving your job. It’s good for your health, but it should not be at the cost of developing other parts of our life.”