‘Now There Is A Sense Of Being Back In Control Of Your Life’: WFH Trends Have Put Women On More Even Footing
This piece is part of a package of articles examining the impact the pandemic had on women in commercial real estate. To see the rest of the package, click here.
When Santa Ana-based affordable housing developer Innovative Housing Opportunities announced it wanted employees to come back to the office one day a week, four out of the five individuals hired during the pandemic quit.
That sent a clear message to CEO Rochelle Mills that working from home was not just a flexible perk of the pandemic. It was a new requirement.
“You could have pushed me over with a feather that one day a week would be enough to get people to say, ‘I'm out,’” she said.
The women who left were all women of color. Mills, a Black woman, was both proud and disappointed to see them go. She has seen a flurry of attention for Black and Brown job candidates across the commercial real estate spectrum since the onset of the pandemic and knows that her employees don’t have to look far to find other offers.
“To have four women of color get hired and walk away in 12 months or less, that was a gut punch for me,” Mills said. “But they had the power and they're doing well. They're not looking back.”
The shift to remote and hybrid schedules, motivated by necessity in the early days of the pandemic and carried on, in part, because of widespread employee preference, has offered employees flexibility in schedule and work location they seem to largely enjoy and want to hold on to.
That’s especially true for women, according to Bisnow research.
Most women Bisnow spoke with agreed working from home, even on a hybrid basis, offered a chance to reclaim commuting time, have more freedom within the workday, find balance — especially as a mom — and avoid judgment. Of those who switched jobs in the pandemic, work-from-home policies played a large role during the hiring process.
Though ultimately her company did return to the office one day a week, Mills understands the importance and value that remote work can hold.
“There were times when it meant a lot to stay late and come in early, to come in on Saturday,” Mills said. “But now there is a sense of being back in control of your life.”
That control has been specifically desirable to one hard-hit group during the pandemic: working mothers.
When one working mother in CRE — who spoke on the condition of anonymity and will be identified as Anna — was hired by a media company one year after the onset of the pandemic, she quickly realized the challenges of working from home with two kids under 2 years old. It was still far preferable to being in the office.
Her setup, despite being “a little bit crazy sometimes,” allowed her to not have to choose between her career of nearly a decade and being a mother. She could take her children to a doctor’s appointment or breastfeed while working and not skip a beat, she said.
“It's just nice to be able to do these things on my own time and not feel like somebody’s watching me, like, ‘Oh, she's skipping out on work again.’”
The paradigm shift away from the office made Anna more comfortable asking for the schedule flexibility and work-from-home options she wanted from her current employer during the interview process.
“With the pandemic, I felt very justified and comfortable telling them that that's what I'm looking for, and telling them that's one of the main things that would help me decide if I wanted the job or not,” she said.
Kayla Gomez was working as an assistant property manager for CBRE when the pandemic hit. She said that even a shift to a hybrid schedule, which her then-workplace adopted around mid-2020, made a huge impact.
“In property management, you have to be there — that's kind of the understanding, right?” Gomez said. “Because the idea is, you cannot do your job unless you're on-site. And what Covid did is, it showed everybody that that is not necessarily the case.”
The time she reclaimed from daily commuting opened up hours in her week that she used to pursue an online master’s degree in business administration.
“It was something that I wasn't able to do before because there was that pressure of always being in the office,” Gomez said.
A lot of people want that flexibility. A Future Forum survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers across the country found that 95% wanted to be able to set their own work hours and 78% of respondents wanted the flexibility to decide where they work.
While the pandemic improved working conditions for many women, the irony is not lost on some.
“What is wrong with our industry if women are faring better [than they were before] during a devastating pandemic that's going to set women back in the workplace a generation?” asked Casey Jahn, the director of the commercial division in Beverly Hills for NestSeekers International, a global real estate firm.
Though working from home unlocked opportunities for women across the CRE spectrum, most sources Bisnow spoke to for this story agreed the pandemic had an unequal impact on women. Mothers and women of color were frequently cited as being disproportionately hit by the pandemic.
Research over the past two years reveals there is a connection between the desire to return to the workplace and race.
A study from the Future Forum published in March 2021 found the majority of Black people and POC surveyed were not looking forward to returning to the office. The survey, which targeted “knowledge workers” across the country already working remotely, found that 97% of the Black respondents wanted to have either fully remote or hybrid workplaces. Only 79% of White workers felt the same.
Future Forum Vice President Sheela Subramanian suggested that not being in the office means certain microaggressions — or comments or behaviors that can make individuals feel uncomfortable or invalidated — are less likely to occur. Working from home can also reduce the workplace challenge of code-switching, which Subramainian described as pressure to change behavior, appearance or speech to fit into the dominant culture.
Gomez, who is Latina, said she has dealt with what she called “the realities of being in an industry that is male-dominated and that is mainly White.”
“For me, it has been more about Whiteness,” Gomez said. “In my experience, the issues haven't been around gender, they have been more about race. And I think that hasn't changed [since the onset of the pandemic].”
Gomez said she thinks CRE companies on the whole are trying to improve working conditions for their employees of color, but the way it has played out has been disappointing. What she has observed is that, in most cases, the burden of educating workers on race still falls to existing workers of color in those companies.
Gomez’s preference for flexible work options over returning full time to the office isn’t because of the negative, race-based interactions she’s had on the job, she said. Nor does she think avoiding the office will eliminate microaggressions and other forms of discrimination in the workplace.
“I think that you need to learn how to confront and how to deal with those situations,” Gomez said.
For women overall, there are some indications that a work-from-home environment has not reduced instances of gender-based workplace issues.
“Being a woman, I got cussed out various times, and I got used by these crazy, psycho men that own buildings,” said Taylor Stoute, a one-time tenant rep with Oxford Partners in Houston who left commercial real estate.
Twenty-six percent of respondents said they experienced an increase in gender-based harassment during the pandemic, according to a 2021 report from CREW Network, citing research by Project Include. The public survey received nearly 3,000 responses from people in 50 industries, from CEOs to interns.
“I suspect some companies assumed that the lack of physical proximity meant these problems would go away, and they haven’t,” Project Include CEO Ellen Pao told Fast Company.
Bisnow reached out to seven of the top CRE brokerages to determine if reports of gender-based discrimination rose during the pandemic, and just two responded. CBRE told Bisnow it received fewer sexual harassment reports than the year before in 2020, the most recent year for which it has data. In 2020, the company looked into 54 complaints of misconduct. In 2019, the number of complaints was 72.
CBRE declined to comment on the drop in complaints, but prior reports indicate 2020’s figure was more of the norm than 2019. There were 58 claims of sexual misconduct in 2018, and 47 in 2017, per the company’s 2019 report.
The other brokerage to respond, Marcus & Millichap, “does not track community data on this important topic,” Marcus & Millichap Chief Human Resources Officer and Senior Vice President Mira Wolff told Bisnow in an emailed statement.
But reporting harassment and experiencing it are not the same. Ramit Mizrahi, a lawyer who exclusively represents employees in cases of discrimination, harassment, retaliation and wrongful terminations, said many individuals who have faced harassment and discrimination of any kind often do not report those incidences, largely because they don’t know what will happen if they do.
Mizrahi said there is just as much of a chance that a complaint will initiate an investigation that will result in a positive change as it will result in the individual being labeled a “troublemaker,” and be targeted for speaking out.
“It's the uncertainty and fear that deters people," Mizrahi said. “I don't think remote work really does much to take away those concerns."
Anna found the flexibility she needed at her current job and feels the pandemic has made companies more understanding of what accommodations people, especially women, need to be successful workers.
But she still seems wary about the limits of that understanding.
When Anna was job-hunting for her current position in late 2020, she was pregnant. Her mentors and the person who recommended her for the position all advised her not to disclose her pregnancy until she had a job offer in hand.
“It kind of felt like it was something that should be swept under the rug, and you shouldn't bring it up because it felt like that was going to be a hindrance to my chances of getting a job,” she said.
After the struggles of the early pandemic, Anna said she feels companies and colleagues have become more understanding of workers’ unique circumstances and life events, and are generally more willing to make special accommodations. However, she says that if she had it to do all over again, she would still wait to share her pregnancy until she had an offer letter in hand.
“I don’t know if it’s my own skepticism, but it seems like it would just be a safer bet to keep that close to my chest,” she said.