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The pandemic hit working women hard. Now comes the opportunity.

Call it the great 'flexibility accelerator'—flexible hours and remote work can help women make up for ground lost to COVID.

These stories have become all too common.

When the pandemic hit, Carolyn Murphy, an HTML developer for trade association CompTIA, had the same concerns as millions of working moms: how to balance her workload from home while caring for her children—in her case, a toddler and an infant.

"There can be internal feelings of guilt," says Murphy, who has the advantages of a helpful husband and an understanding employer. "There's this idea in society that women should be able to juggle home and family. It can hit really hard."

What many stressed-out working moms have done is try to juggle it all, shifting around their schedules, such as they are. "For a lot of women, we've changed the way we structured our day," says Adelaide Reilly, general manager and senior vice president of the media division at The Channel Company, an IT event and media business.

Yes, in many cases, there are spouses who help out. Yet, working women have shouldered much of the burden during the pandemic. Whatever the reasons—societal pressure, perhaps—something had to give, and that often has meant working mothers giving their notice.

Challenger, Gray, & Christmas, a Chicago-based executive outplacement firm, says 2.1 million women have left the U.S. workforce since March of 2020. That's 20 percent more than the number of men who left in the same period. At the same time, a survey by research firm Decision Analyst found that 51 percent of working women cited the added stress as hurting their health, compared with 39 percent of working men. In technology, where lack of women representation is already a top concern, this setback is particularly painful.

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"It's alarming," says Andy Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray, & Christmas. "With so many schools and daycares closed, couples have had to make difficult decisions about whose career is going to move forward."

If there is a silver lining, it is this: Many companies have adapted, understanding the need for flexibility and taking steps to accommodate working parents who don't want to choose between family and career.

'Empower your employees and trust them'

That is the good news, according to Anke Hirning, global lead for the management of change team at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. COVID-19 has forced many companies to look anew at how people work and how to make real changes that affect work-life balance. And she's optimistic these changes will last well after the pandemic is over.

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"What is needed is empathy—real empathy," says Hirning, who works with customers across the globe to develop management of change services that support employees of enterprises going through transformations. "A lot of people are experiencing difficult situations—living and working in small apartments with three kids at home and maybe their elderly parents. You have to understand that people are in different situations now. You have to give them maximum flexibility. And this has to come down from the top."

Hirning says the pandemic has given companies a chance to step back and take a look at how manageable or oppressive their employees' workloads have become over the years. For a long time, companies have put more and more demands on their workers, and for many, the responsibilities and stress have grown past what many can withstand, even without a pandemic.

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"It's clear today that some workloads just aren't feasible anymore," she adds. "For me, the pandemic is an opportunity for change so we can get that workload back to a human level. Suddenly, people are seeing their priorities differently. The pandemic is a chance to change things so companies see people as humans and not just a cost factor."

Hirning participates in a roundtable of HR execs from German, Austrian, and Swiss companies ranging from publishing houses to global banks and big tech. Most of them, she says, are rethinking how and where their people work—not just through the pandemic, but after. Some are telling their employees they don't have to work in the office; some are deciding all office workers can work from home or they can work from home a few days per week. Even so, Hirning says at quite a few companies, managers still do not believe in the home office or employees simply don't want it.

They're also telling employees that if they have to get their kids' breakfast and get them started on schoolwork, they don't have to join meetings until after 9 or 10 a.m. Maybe they need to work really early in the morning, spend the day with their kids, and then work again in the evenings. That's OK, too.

"You have to offer a job, and a way of working, that makes sense to people and what they need right now," says Hirning. "It generally means turning everything upside down. Bosses can step back and let workers organize themselves around what they need and how they best work together. Empower your employees and trust them." After all, most employees want to get back to work and pride themselves on doing a good job.

What companies can do

Flexibility is just what Colleen Hughes, executive vice president of HR at CompTIA, wanted Murphy and all of the association's 250 employees to experience.

Hughes says CompTIA started holding regular town hall meetings over Zoom to offer real-time communications about moves the organization is making and how it's holding up during the pandemic. It also allows employees to schedule their work hours around their children's schedules and go offline early on Friday afternoons—meaning they don't have to respond to emails and no Zoom meetings.

For The Channel Company's Reilly, helping her workers has been about enabling them to create flexible schedules, but it also has been about listening to what else they've needed.

People said they missed the comradery of quick chats in the break room or over cube walls, so she arranged virtual meetings so people could catch up—not to talk about work, but to talk about life, TV shows, whatever.

"We need to think less about what a workday is and think more about how to be productive and how work can be performed differently," Reilly says. "Even after the pandemic ends, it'll still be important for us to look at the individual and figure out the best work-life balance for them. There isn't one perfect model for that. … You can feel part of the group no matter where you are."

Alaina Percival, CEO of Women Who Code, a nonprofit that provides services for women pursuing technology careers, says she is hopeful the extra stresses the pandemic has brought will fuel lasting changes.

"This is a time of radical disruption, and it creates space to do things entirely differently," she says. "We are evolving away from the status quo. We can put in place more inclusive practices. Companies are seeing that working remotely and hiring from different parts of the country works. Companies are learning they don't need to invest in an in-person work culture. They can have functional remote teams. I think we'll end up seeing permanent changes."

HPE's Hirning agrees. "Companies are realizing that they have to rethink how they're doing things and how employees are working," she says. "If you don't, people will burn out and leave you. People don't need to be in the office. What's the point? The pandemic has become a flexibility accelerator."

And that would be welcome news for any woman aiming to build a career in tech.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.