The COVID-19 pandemic has required all of us to give up things we value, whether that be travel, seeing a show, dining out, or visiting with friends and family. Many of us gave up going to the office and began working remotely from our homes. Some of us took on new responsibilities after losing childcare, such as supervising remote schooling for our kids. This time hasn’t been easy for anyone, but the pandemic has dealt a serious blow to working women.

A recent research study by Perceptyx titled “The Gender Gap Widens: Three Critical Actions to Support Women in the Workplace” highlights both the short- and long-term challenges women face, in particular women caregivers. It’s no secret that women have been disproportionately impacted by job losses. In 2020, women lost more than 5 million jobs, and the participation of women in the labor force has reached its lowest point since 1988. While the opportunity to work remotely seemed like a boon to many women, having to work a full-time job, care for kids, and manage remote schooling was too much to handle. When push came to shove, many women had no choice but to put their families first.

But with COVID cases dropping, millions of Americans receiving vaccinations every day, and schools reopening for in-person classes, there’s the promise of normality on the horizon. Women should be able to get back to business. But can they?

Perceptyx research indicates that when it comes to returning to a traditional workplace and work schedule, both men and women have changed their preferences since the onset of the pandemic. Today, 48 percent of women are less likely to want to return to a traditional workplace five days per week than they were six months ago vs. 26 percent of women who want to return full-time. In contrast, 36 percent of men are less likely to want to return, and about one-third are more likely to want to return to the traditional workplace. That translates to fewer women at the physical workplace than before the pandemic.

Companies have learned that remote working arrangements can be productive, and many employees would like to work at home at least some of the time. About 24 percent of men and women want a hybrid work arrangement, with some time at home and some time in the office. Men working a hybrid arrangement however are looking to spend more days in the office than women; men prefer three days to four days per week, women prefer fewer, typically two days to three days per week.

While the notion of giving women greater flexibility in where they work has great merit, there are consequences. Perceptyx research found that women who worked at home at least part of the time also report fewer performance reviews and less recognition, as well as fewer promotions and pay increases. Being “out of sight” part of the time seems to lead to “out of mind” when it comes to career growth and compensation. Any growth in the number of women that work at home some days per week will inevitably lead to a decline in the upward movement of women in organizations. Without intervention, most of the gains that women have made into senior-level positions will be lost.

So what can organizations do?

  • Start with sourcing more women into positions by limiting the number of jobs that require women to be in the workplace daily.
  • Enhance awareness of this talent pool by implementing programs that connect women to mentors and leaders in the organization — despite where they are physically located.
  • Invest in multimethod development opportunities in which women can participate online or in person.
  • Re-evaluate compensation and promotion criteria to eliminate “in person” bias to ensure women move up in the organization. Focus criteria on work completed, not on face time in the office.
  • Identify the workplace factors that motivate women and prevent their departures. Perceptyx research revealed that women are more likely to stay in roles and with companies that encourage them to make their own decisions about how they accomplish their work, be it the approach and resources used, or the place and time in which the work gets done. It would be a mistake to assume that women and men are motivated by the same things; take the time to understand what women want.

The pandemic has created a “one step forward, two steps back” scenario for the progress of women in organizations, and many women have given up jobs in which they excelled and that they loved. Organizations have the opportunity to bring them back into the fold and help them take giant steps forward. Targeted actions are critical to ensure this becomes a reality.