For women to avoid 'office housework', work from home

It can be easy to see how parents, particularly working mothers, might realize benefits of working from home. But there are other, less obvious reasons that women in tech can reap big rewards by choosing to telecommute.

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Have you ever had one of those days at work where someone was coming over to talk to you about something every few minutes, and it took you forever to get anything done? Workplace distractions are a reality for most of us, and working from home may bring an opportunity for improved focus, especially for those of us in “geeky” jobs. This improved focus may have an additional benefit for women in tech, beyond just the possibility of easing childcare duties.

A recent article in Wired Magazine talked about a new job site geared toward women looking to work remotely, called PowerToFly. While the focus of the article was the benefit of telecommuting for working mothers, this is not the only reason that working from home can be a big benefit for women.

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In a New York Times article, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant identified a phenomenon that I have often heard discussed by female techs: they called it “Office Housework.” Women in tech often feel pressured to, or are specifically asked to, pick up the metaphorical wet towels and dirty socks in a company. These are things that are not business-critical, but that keep things running smoothly or improve office morale. It can include tasks as simple as setting up meeting rooms or coordinating coworkers’ birthday treats, to organizing community service projects.

In workplaces where there are many women, these tasks may be distributed more widely, as there are always some individuals in a group – male and female – who are more inclined to do this sort of work. But in an environment where there are more males, this organizational “housework” may be more likely to fall onto the shoulders of women. This is not to say that men are never asked to perform these chores, but it is generally considered more acceptable for men to say “No” or to suggest someone else.

There is a cost to this imbalance: It tends not to be highly regarded work, and it is often done out of the sight of those people higher up the organizational food chain. (Does anyone put “got coworkers’ birthday cupcakes” as a bullet item on her yearly review?) This means it can cost women promotions, if it’s more than just tidying the occasional break-room sink, for instance. Women who do get promoted may still find themselves drafted to do these tasks, which could be better handled by junior employees or administrative personnel for whom these could be primary job functions rather than side tasks.

But there are a couple of aspects to this imbalance that are often forgotten; how much doing a lot of these unrelated tasks can negatively affect people’s productivity, and how this increases stress, which leads to employee burnout.

If you’ve had one of those days where you feel pulled in a thousand different directions, you know how stressful this can feel. Having a handful of pressing tasks that all need to happen “now” can make you want to tear your hair out. For many women this is a near-daily experience. The toll of this additional stress should be unsurprising: For every 1,000 people at work, 80 more women than men burn out.

According to a number of studies, even briefly swapping to tasks that require little mental focus can cost a great deal in terms of the time it takes to get back up to speed on the original task. There are certainly ways to avoid this “housework” using diplomacy. But another great way to avoid being drafted for these tasks is physically not to be in the office.

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This isn’t to say working from home is a sure-fire cure for distraction or burnout. Some women may find satisfaction in feeling like the world would spin off its axis without them keeping things running smoothly. Women who have already been established as the office cleanup person may not find relief by escaping to a home office. And for some women, working from home may mean that household or childcare duties become the new distraction. In this case, learning to say “No” constructively, or finding a company with a corporate culture that does not leave women holding the proverbial laundry bag, may be the only real solution.

It’s also important to remember that “out of sight” is also often “out of mind,” so women working from home need to place more focus on making sure their achievements are noticed by reviewing and hiring managers. And being at home will bring its own literal housework, but this is generally only performed for a small group of people who may be more apt to recognize (and appreciate) that these tasks should happen outside office hours. But without additional distractions, women working remotely may have a chance to make a bigger difference in their organizations.

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