ASB/NZIER research finds working from home has many benefits, but is more challenging for women

08 March 2022

  • More than 60% of people surveyed said working from home during lockdowns was a positive experience, but there are pros and cons to working remotely that need to be well understood and managed.
  • When it comes to juggling home working with care responsibilities, women are more likely to do all or most of the housework and childcare.
  • Women were less likely than men to report having the ideal equipment and space to work from home.
  • Men in management roles are more likely than women to prefer their employees to be in the office.

Working from home has become the norm for many New Zealanders over the past two years and to mark International Women's Day, ASB has teamed up with the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) to look at Kiwis' experience of work from home (WFH) and how it differs for people of different genders.

'Zooming into a better work-life balance? Gender and equity insights from New Zealanders' experiences with working from home' found while there are many benefits of working from home, unequal sharing of household responsibilities means the experience is different, and often more challenging, for women.

The report shows prior to COVID, organisations were already shifting towards remote working or a hybrid blend of working from home and in the office and this was accelerated by the pandemic. 20% of Kiwis can now work from home as often as they like and nearly half of respondents said the ability to work from home was important, very important or essential to them.

Reflecting on the report ASB CEO Vittoria Shortt says, "Flexible working is a vital part of creating a compelling proposition for our people, but it also comes with challenges that need to be better understood so that these options are genuinely creating benefits for everyone."

The majority of respondents had an overall positive experience of working from home during lockdowns, with 61% saying they had a positive or very positive experience, agreeing the ability to achieve a better work/life balance, avoiding long commutes and overall cost-effectiveness were major benefits of working from home. 

The report also pointed to increasing recognition that flexible working arrangements - from remote working to shorter work weeks - did not have the negative productivity impacts that may have caused employer resistance in the past. In fact, of those who prefer to work from home around half of workers reported they are more effective at home than in the office.

While in agreement on the benefits of remote working, the experience is different for women and men, particularly when it comes to childcare and their work environment. Women were significantly more likely to report doing most or all of the childcare and home-schooling during lockdowns.

"COVID has created a challenge for families, with parents required to home school their children during lockdowns on top of their normal work life which is an unrealistic expectation. We can see from the research that this is a responsibility women tend to pick up more, with 56% saying they do most or all of the home schooling. Only 22% of respondents felt the home-schooling load was shared fairly. We are likely to see this continue in the near term as families isolate due to COVID," says Ms Shortt.

"Our study makes it clear that although flexible working has many benefits, it also highlights the difference between what men and women are expected to do around the home, particularly with kids being at home more. With women still taking on responsibility for the bulk of domestic chores, the risk is that they are being disadvantaged both at work and in the home, trying to juggle two roles." 

Meanwhile less than half of respondents said they had all the equipment needed to work comfortably and effectively at home, or had a space designed for home working, but women were significantly more likely than men to report this. Where there is a study or office in the house, men are more likely to occupy it while women work at the kitchen table, for example, with 34% of men and 23% of women saying they have a better work from home set up than their partner. 

"For employers, it's important that we support our people with the right equipment and setup where we can, so they feel comfortable working from home. While we can't change household division of labour for childcare and housework, we can shine a light on this challenge and support our people with active conversations."

According to the research, male managers were more likely than their female counterparts to prefer their staff be physically present in the workplace and this is often due to a lack of confidence managing remote workers. Men who themselves prefer to work from the office are more likely than women to be motivated by the need to be seen at work whereas women were more likely to value the professional and social connections in the workplace, demonstrating that the concept of ideal worker culture may be stronger in men than in women. 

The research indicates women are more likely to be disadvantaged by workplace cultures where employees are valued for behaviours that are not associated with productivity - for example arriving at work early and leaving late, taking few and short breaks, and minimising sick leave.

"We need to ensure our culture plays a role in supporting our people to work remotely if they choose to in a way that doesn't disadvantaged them at work. It's important that we support our leaders to be more confident leading remote workers. They need to be actively encouraging work-life balance and may need to model working from home themselves. New ways of working are a small silver lining to come out of the COVID pandemic and it's important we don't undo the progress we've made," says Ms Shortt.
Finally, the report shows remote working may be killing the concept of a sick day with one in five respondents saying it's harder to justify taking the day off when they were already at home. Again, this was more common in women. 

"Two key issues really come out of the research as critical concerns, particularly for women, and that is work-life balance and work-life separation. Leaders can help facilitate a shift in thinking and provide support to ensure they are doing all they can to mitigate this.

"Leaders need to be clearer on what they need from their people with respect to remote and on-site working and encourage active management of work-life boundaries. Just because a day is not bookended by a commute to and from work or having a laptop at home, does not mean the workday starts at 6am and finishes whenever the last person logs off. Maintaining work-life separation is so critical for our wellbeing," says Ms Shortt.

"There are many benefits to working from home and when done well, it's a win-win situation, however we need to ensure we are doing all we can to avoid the downsides that can come with this."

Read the full report here.

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