As the “Great Resignation” accelerates, hundreds of thousands of women are leaving the workforce altogether, creating an urgent need for CHROs to understand women’s perceptions of the current employee experience, the future hybrid workplace, and the drivers of retention and attrition.
Women are leaving the workplace in historic numbers, and leaders must quickly understand what is driving their desire to leave their organizations, their expectations for the future hybrid workplace and their current perceptions of the employee experience.
The pandemic has shifted women’s perception of work significantly. Sixty-five percent of women agree the pandemic has made them rethink the place that work should have in their lives, and 67% of women with children agree the pandemic has shifted their attitude toward the value of aspects outside work.
Women have put in high levels of effort during the pandemic but are suffering from fatigue. Only 43% of women agree they have enough energy for leisure activities, which is a notably lower percentage than their male counterparts, 54% of whom agree.
Women knowledge workers returning to a hybrid setup are keen to mitigate the risk of virtual and meeting overload. Twenty-eight percent report they want meeting-free days as the norm, 29% want a restriction on the time spent in meetings, and 23% want 25- or 55-minute meetings.
Forty-one percent of women knowledge workers said they would quit if they got a pay cut for working fully remotely, and 33% would quit if they got a pay cut for working partially remotely. Work satisfaction and compensation are the top two factors keeping women at their organizations.
This document was revised on 14 December 2021. The document you are viewing is the corrected version. For more information, see the page on gartner.com.
Women are leaving the workforce at an alarming rate. Reports show that in September alone, more than 300,000 women left the U.S. workforce.The unbalanced distribution of work and household responsibilities has created challenges for women in the remote and hybrid work environments taking shape amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Among women and men with full-time jobs, partners and children, women were spending 7.4 hours more per week on child care and 5.3 hours more on elderly care just within the first month of the pandemic. Women report lower well-being than men, and many are already voicing the concern that, in a hybrid work design, where women are more likely than men to take advantage of remote work, they may suffer from leadership proximity bias. This bias is where leaders unconsciously favor those they see in person more regularly. Unless employers rapidly take women’s employment expectations into account as they design the future of work at their organization, as well as women’s current experiences in the workplace, they will struggle to retain and engage their women employees.
The pandemic caused many individuals to stop and reassess their current lives, what they value, and how they are spending their time. With distractions such as travel and leisure activities severely restricted during national lockdowns, and time with extended loved ones suddenly less accessible, employees began to rethink whether the only constant in their life — work — was meeting their needs. Gartner data shows that 65% of women agree that the pandemic has made them rethink the place that work should have in their life, with 69% of women with children agreeing that the pandemic has shifted their attitude toward the value of aspects outside work (see Figure 1). Almost 60% of the Gen Z women are questioning the purpose of their day-to-day job, and 63% of all women say the pandemic has made them long for a bigger change in their life.
If employers are to design an employee experience that takes these realities into account, they must stop to reflect on where the experience is currently falling short.
Our survey data shows that women are dissatisfied with their employee experience in three distinct areas:
Equity: Only 57% of women feel that employees at their organization who help the organization achieve its strategic objectives are fairly rewarded and recognized (see Figure 2). (Men report a 5% higher sentiment, with 63% of men agreeing.) This perception of inequity may only become exacerbated by a hybrid work design that does not take this into account, where low levels of visibility mean that remote workers — more likely, according to our data, to be women— may suffer from leadership proximity bias.
Fatigue: Women have put in high levels of effort throughout the pandemic — indeed, only 10% of women told us that they don’t care if work is done well or poorly, compared to 17% of men. But these high levels of effort have been in exchange for high levels of fatigue: only 43% of women agree they have enough energy for leisure activities, which is notably lower than their male counterparts, 54% of whom agree. Faced with an uneven distribution of household work, women are struggling to pursue those extracurricular activities that might re-energize them and lead to more fulfilling lives. This is perhaps why only 66% of women say their typical workday lets them meet both personal and professional goals.
Purpose and trust: Where 65% of men told us they look forward to going to work, only 57% of women agreed. In addition, only 66% of women feel like they are part of something important at their organization — a key value-add in an era where work is no longer about surviving in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but thriving.
The future work environment will undoubtedly be hybrid, with ninety-nine percent of HR leaders expecting at least some of their workforce will be hybrid after the pandemic ends. Employee expectations for their employee experience have changed and will continue to change. Where they once held the employer responsible only for their work experience, they now increasingly expect the employer to help improve their life experience. That may mean taking a stance on social justice or environmental causes, broadening their benefits to improve employee access to healthcare or parental leave, or allowing for more flexible work to lessen time-spend on draining commutes. Employers must bear these expectations in mind as they design the hybrid workplace. In the short-term, they must consider how to make the workplace a safe offering for the workforce still living through a pandemic. In the long-term, they must understand how to take advantage of the opportunities of hybrid work to improve the employee experience.
As offices begin reopening, Gartner data shows that women consider certain safety measures to be essential for their agreement to return. This is perhaps no surprise given that 1 in 2 women who were fully on-site prior to the pandemic, but have been remote since, agree that the level of safety they feel while working improved over the first year of the pandemic, with 27% saying it is “significantly better.”
The most essential safety measure selected was hand sanitizer stations, with 63% of women selecting (see Figure 3), followed by required masks in all indoor areas (53%) and daily disinfection of work and common areas (53%). Also high on the list was a vaccine mandate for employees, with almost half (45%) of the female population selecting. These numbers increase for women still working remotely, with 55% preferring employee vaccine mandates and 62% preferring masks to be worn indoors.
This data was consistent across the three populations we examined: women, women whose job does not allow them to work remotely, and women with children (see Figure 4).
This section pertains to knowledge workers only, as we examine the specific preferences of women who will be navigating a hybrid environment — working both from home and in the office — rather than women whose job does not allow them to work remotely.
First, it is apparent that women want hybrid work, rather than fully remote or fully on-site. Only 4% of women knowledge workers stated they would never want to work remotely (see Figure 5). A larger percentage would like to work remotely full-time (36%), but almost half of all women knowledge workers would ideally like to work in a hybrid way (remote 2 to 4 days per week). The data shows that in comparison to men, women are much more likely to want remote work, which is an important differentiation that senior leaders must bear in mind when thinking about the equity implications of hybrid work for career development, earnings potential and the company’s leadership bench.
Employers are rapidly becoming aware that the hybrid workplace will require new norms and codified behaviours to ensure performance, well-being, and engagement. Where employees used to be able to rely on regular facetime with their peers, managers and leaders, this is no longer a guarantee in the hybrid workplace, and collaboration must become a more intentional exercise. As our work becomes more virtual and asynchronous, teams must also safeguard health and protect time away from screens. Women in particular, who, as seen, are less likely to have energy and time to disconnect after work, have specific preferences for the norms they would like to see applied in a hybrid work setup.
Perhaps because women are suffering from high levels of fatigue, they are keen to reinstate some work-life boundaries, which we may hypothesize is why almost a quarter of women would like to see a ban on after-hours emails (see Figure 6). Women also seem keen to mitigate the risk of virtual and meeting overload. Twenty-eight percent selected meeting-free days as a desired norm, 29% selected a restriction on the number of hours spent in meetings in a week, and 23% wanted to set 25- or 55-minute meetings as the default.Rather than see this as a desire for a one-size-fits-all approach, leaders should view this as an indicator of women’s workload fatigue, and the desire for more balance in their workdays.
It is clear that women are still eager to meet with their peers in person, and indeed the most popular norm — selected by 32% of women — was to see organizations set a minimum number of days in a year that the team must gather in person. With fears of proximity bias prevalent, it is perhaps not surprising that women would like to see teams being held accountable for this, from individual contributors to leaders. Indeed, 59% of women knowledge workers think in-office workers will be seen as higher performers, and 78% of women knowledge workers think in-office workers are more likely to be promoted.
Meeting etiquette in the hybrid world also seems to be of importance: 29% of women said they would like to see everyone in a meeting join on video unless the entire team is gathered in a single space. Given the low levels of equity women are feeling, applying new norms for hybrid meetings will be essential moving forward.
But having the flexibility to work from home is also important to women, on the understanding that some work activities are better suited to the quiet and privacy of the remote environment, assuming that the home environment is a productive space from which to work. We asked survey respondents to evaluate which activities they felt were better experience on-site vs remote. The top items selected for the remote environment were:
For the on-site environment, they were:
Establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships
Developing and building teams
Resolving conflicts and negotiating with others
Coaching and developing others
It should be noted that most women said there was no significant difference in working remotely or on-site for the majority of the work activities listed (see Figure 7).
We also asked survey respondents to compare a variety of outcomes in the remote and on-site environment (see Figure 8). The top items selected for the remote environment were:
Ability to manage childcare responsibilities
Level of safety felt while working
Physical and mental health of loved ones
The top items selected for the on-site environment were:
Inclusion and belonging within their team
How connected they felt to company culture
Disconnecting from work at the end of the workday
Interestingly, there was no significant difference noted between the two environments for productivity of work, psychological well being, or the extent to which their working environment helps them be productive.
As the great resignation continues to see millions of employees leave their organization, and as this mass exodus for many women means leaving the workforce entirely, employers should seek to understand what will motivate women to either stay or leave their organization.
We examined women’s intent to leave across four populations: all women, women with children, women executives, and women whose job could not be done remotely. Across all four, intent to leave remained fairly consistent. 30% of all women intend to look for a new job within the next year, and 25% are actively looking already (see Figure 9). Women executives seem to be most active in their job activities, with 27% having recently made phone calls or sent out their resume in order to find a job with another organization.
For women whose job could be done remotely — knowledge workers — we asked those who had been remote due to the pandemic whether they would leave their organization if they were mandated to work fully on-site again — 22% told us they would (see Figure 10). 41% said they would quit if they had to take a pay cut for working fully remotely, and 33% if they had to take a pay cut for working partially remotely. Organizations should bear these factors in mind as they think about their flexibility policies and any pay-based implications they are considering.
We also asked women what was currently keeping them at their organization. Compensation, work satisfaction, and flexibility are three key elements for women at their current workplace, followed closely by the benefits their organization provides (see Figure 11). More women knowledge workers (45%) indicated the importance of compensation at their current organization compared to men (40%). Women also indicate a slight preference over men for benefits at their current organization, future opportunities at their organization, and their work location, suggesting that women either are confident in their current organization or are fearful that changing organizations will decrease their benefits and limit career opportunities.
Consistent with the data shared earlier in this article, it appears that women want the flexibility to customize their work and life schedules, but not at the expense of future earning potential and career opportunities. Organizations that demonstrate their commitment to equal pay and equitable access to future opportunities across genders and location preferences will engage more of their current women employees.To appeal to potential women candidates in the hybrid world, organizations should showcase their compensation offerings, location options, flexible scheduling, and benefits. Location and flexibility are extremely important as 55% of women knowledge workers would only consider new roles that offer remote work. However, women will be most attracted to organizations that ensure that future opportunities and total earning potential are not impacted by location flexibility or gender.
This report is based on analysis of the 2021 Gartner Hybrid and Return to Work Sentiment Survey, which surveyed 3,000 employees across a wide range of industries, functions, geographies and current work statuses to understand their preferences and challenges related to current and future work design.
2021 Gartner Hybrid Work Employee Survey
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Note 1: Survey Item Definitions
Knowledge workers: We define knowledge workers as those respondents who answered yes to the following question:
Work status: We asked all respondents to indicate how frequently they work remotely and depending on their response we categorized them into 3 groups: on-site, hybrid or remote. Here is how we categorized them: