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Return-to-office mandates pit spouse against spouse

The return-to-office tug of war is playing out not only between bosses and employees but between spouses. Corporate insistence that workers show up at the office sets up a conflict between two-career couples at home.

Many households established new routines during the work-from-home era that allowed them to divvy up responsibilities – grocery shopping, laundry, waiting for the electrician – more equitably than in the past. And the earlier, voluntary stages of the RTO push allowed couples leeway to decide who would commute on which days.

But as executives demand more days in the office and set stricter team schedules, the ebbing of flexibility is creating a mounting sense of alarm that the future will look an awful lot like the past, when women sacrificed their careers to make time for their higher share of household labor.

A strong RTO push is likely to blunt the gains of the last two years – when U.S. women reached new highs in labor force participation and men a new level of unpaid household work. It was nowhere near equality, but we were heading in the right direction.

Backsliding isn’t inevitable if employers remain open to hybrid schedules. A 2018 study looked at research from 45 countries and found that employer support was the single most important factor in mitigating work-life conflict.

Because spouses aren't just negotiating between themselves, of course. A third party is influencing the debate: employers, which have the power to grant (or deny) employees’ requests for flexibility. And historical data shows they are less likely to approve requests from men.

A 2016 analysis from Bain & Company in Australia found that men’s applications for flexible work arrangements were twice as likely to be rejected as women’s. (Other data shows a similar disparity in the U.K.) Although such arrangements increased women'’ job satisfaction, they seemed to have the opposite effect on men.

Men are more likely to be punished for explicitly seeking work-life balance because of an outdated assumption about the division of household labor: that a married woman will cut back at work and that a man (regardless of marital status) will always be on call.

Bain’s study jibes with earlier academic research in the U.S. that found that men pay a higher penalty than women for seeking flexible work arrangements. This is particularly true when men explain that the reason for their request is to take on traditionally female tasks, like caring for children. Perhaps sensing this, men are less likely to ask.

But today, tightening office presence requirements will make it much harder to find balance through under-the-radar schedule chicanery. Companies have started tracking badge swipes, keyboard strokes and computer idle time.

Now, women are slower to return than men, with 41% saying that they worked from home at least some of the time in 2022, down just half a percentage point from the year before. Such employer attitudes foster inequities at home that can lead to simmering resentments.

The evidence shows that most couples engage in a little bit of self-deception about the balance of labor in their relationships. In surveys of two-career heterosexual couples, women are more likely to say that each partner’s career is equally important, while men are more likely to say their own career gets priority. Economic data suggests the men are right. But men are much less clear-eyed when it comes to household labor. There, it’s men who express egalitarian ideals but consistently overestimate their contribution to housework.

What this says to me is that couples today want to share the load equally – women to be equal partners in earning and men to be equal partners at home. But something gets in the way. A big part of that “something” is employer attitudes and policies.

Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor.