Living

6 Women On WFH, Going Back To The Office—And Never Having Left

As some offices open back up, many women’s careers have been permanently altered.

A well-lit workspace with a work devices, notebooks, and a pair of glasses for a feature on working women during the pandemic

(Photo: iStock)

The pandemic has hit working women differently. Female-dominated industries like retail and food services suffered most due to restrictions, and women lost their jobs at a disproportionate rate, leading to a “she-cession” that is still ongoing. These changes forced women to adapt the way they work, often while juggling the responsibilities of caregiving and domestic labour. Two years later, as COVID-19 restrictions lift and offices open back up, many women don’t want to return to a pre-pandemic working culture.

A recent study by the Angus Reid Institute found that 45 percent of women ages 35 to 54 prefer working fully remotely, while 43 percent would prefer a hybrid model that is mostly remote. In the case that they’re ordered to return to the office full time, 39 percent of women in this group who prefer to work from home said they would comply but consider looking for a new job, while 19 percent said they would likely quit and seek a different job right away. Clearly, the pandemic has prompted many of us to rethink the way we work.

We spoke to six women about how COVID-19 has affected their careers, and what their work situation looks like as restrictions lift.

Khadijah Plummer

Community content manager
Toronto, Ont.

A photo of a woman, Khadijah Plummer, wearing a yellow sweater and smiling for a feature on working women during the pandemic

Now at her fifth job since the onset of the pandemic, Khadijah Plummer says she can’t see herself ever returning to fully in-person work. She’s been remote since March 2020, when her office job at a tech company transitioned online. But, like so many others, work remained online, and she found herself appreciating the privacy and flexibility of being in her own space. When she started to feel like she was plateauing in her position, she decided to look for other work. Since then, she’s been trying out different remote jobs looking for the right fit. She experienced burnout from virtual job hunting and Zoom interviews, she says, but now she’s happy with her role in the online corporate world.

Plummer values working from home not only for its flexibility in her schedule but the absence of office burnout. She recalls pre-pandemic days when she experienced discrimination as often the only Black woman in the room. “At every office I’ve been in, there’s been some sort of comment about my hair,” she says, adding that her co-workers and higher-ups have tried to dictate how she styles it. “There have been other microaggressions and even macroaggressions that I faced in office space. Being at home, it’s nice that I can control my environment a lot more. I think that definitely plays into me not wanting to go back,” she says. “After you go through things, you don’t miss an office so much.”

“A lot of people think that people working remotely aren’t putting in work, and I think that’s untrue,” she says. “You still need to produce at the end of the day.” Now, the option of remote work is a must-have for her. “During this time, flexibility and acceptance are the two biggest things that have surfaced for me as to what’s important in a work environment,” she explains. “I feel I’m accepted in my own space.”

Kim Bowie

Public relations consultant
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

A photo of Kim Bowie smiling against a white background for a feature on working women during the pandemic

In 2018, on her way home to Vancouver from a trip to Mexico, Kim Bowie met her now-husband. “It’s like the last great airplane romance,” she laughs. Because he was living in Mexico and she was in Canada, they had a long-distance relationship for a few years. “We couldn’t figure out how to make it work, and then COVID hit, and I lost my job.” No longer tied down by her job at a PR company, Bowie decided to move to Mexico to be with her partner. Now doing freelance projects while working remotely for a PR agency in Vancouver, she says this lifestyle change has given her freedom.

“When I was working in an office, I had a really hard time shutting off. This pandemic [made me] realize how essential it is for my mental health to take some time [for myself],” Bowie says. But as the world opens up, she feels pressure from her agency and clients to move back to Canada and be readily available for in-person meetings. Because she’s living out of the country (she’s been back to Canada twice during the pandemic), she’s getting fewer hours of work. “As the world starts to get back to normal, I think it’s going to be more of a challenge for me to find work if I want to continue on this remote path.” But if she moves back to Canada, she has to sponsor her husband, which is expensive. “Every time there’s a new restriction lifted, I’m really happy for the rest of the world, but I’m also acutely aware that that can impact my [work opportunities],” she says.

Now, she’s at a crossroads. “On my good days, I call it a time of agility,” she says. “And on the days when I’m feeling really anxious, which is happening a lot more now, I try and think that things are fluid and they’ll work out.” Bowie notes that she misses the camaraderie of the office, and hopes to find a flexible hybrid model that will allow her to work while travelling back and forth from Mexico. “I hope that somewhere down the line I am back in an office that allows you to come in when you want to.”

Zoe Michano-Furlotte

Medical resident at Northern Ontario School of Medicine
Thunder Bay, Ont.

A photo of Zoe Michano Furlotte, clad in a white t-shirt, for a feature on working women during the pandemic

Currently in her final year of psychiatry residency, Zoe Michano-Furlotte has spent most of the pandemic working at the regional hospital in Thunder Bay. At the start of COVID-19, it was challenging trying to keep up with ongoing changes in protocol while worrying about the safety of her family. “The biggest thing for me was the fear for the health of my grandmothers and my parents, and not wanting to be the mode of transmission to them,” she says, adding that she had to cut off physical contact with them during this time.

“The culture and the atmosphere [at the hospital] was more intense,” she says. Though she adjusted to this new normal as months went on, wearing full PPE made it harder to connect with patients who were struggling mentally. “Psychiatry [involves] having such personal and emotional conversations. It typically takes about an hour to do a full psychiatric consult. Coming in with the gown, mask, gloves and head protective gear can be difficult for [patients].”

Despite its challenges, she says working on the frontlines made her appreciate being in healthcare even more. “I got into this position for the reason of helping people,” she says. “I don’t think there’s been a time where I’ve wished I was working from home. I think psychiatric care needs to be delivered in person; you need to be at the hospital. It’s where I wanted to be.” As she continues to work in person, Michano-Furlotte looks forward to seeing patients with fewer restrictions in the future. Going forward, she hopes hospitals like Thunder Bay Regional can grow virtual care efforts to reach remote Indigenous communities.

“Because we are in the North, we did virtual assessments as a part of our practice at the [hospital] before the pandemic hit, so it was nothing new,” she explains. “I think that can be expanded. We’re so short-staffed, and we are definitely in need of more psychiatrists. It’s hard to do outreach to other rural communities. If we had the ability to do that, it could be helpful.”

Patrina Duhaney

Assistant professor at the University of Calgary
Calgary, Alta.

A photo of Patrina Duhaney smiling for a feature on working women during the pandemic

Patrina Duhaney thrives on independent work. But when the pandemic brought on a period of uncertainty and university budget cuts, the assistant professor says working alone was stressful. “There was a sense of isolation,” she says. “You’re not engaging with your colleagues and having that relationship that you normally have with them.” When the university pivoted to online learning, she also noticed that some of her students were struggling with the shift.

Duhaney, whose research includes critical race theory and anti-Black racism, has had her workload increase since the Black Lives Matter movement of summer 2020. “There was more demand for my time and expertise,” she says, adding that she is part of several equity-related committees at the University of Calgary, including leading an anti-Black Racism Task Force.

“There are so few Black and racialized individuals in academia,” she says. “I see that a bunch of my colleagues who are racialized are burdened with doing service work to promote equity issues.” These long hours have contributed to a feeling of burnout during the pandemic. At the same time, working online has allowed her professional networking circles to broaden. “I was able to access more information and establish relationships with other academics across the globe.”

As restrictions lift at the university, Duhaney, who is not teaching this semester, is transitioning back to some in-person office days. However, the pandemic has prompted her to alter her teaching method going forward. For the 2022-2023 academic year, Duhaney plans to make all her classes virtual, so they can be more widely accessible to students. “COVID has taught us a really important lesson that we need to re-envision how we deliver information,” she says.

Lesley Robb

Entrepreneur and master’s student at Trent University
Peterborough, Ont.

A woman, Lesley Robb, smiling in front of a white wall for a feature on working women during the pandemic

Lesley Robb has been working from home as a graphic designer for 11 years. After giving birth to her first child in 2010, she recalls dealing with “the office politics of motherhood” as the only woman on her team. “I always felt [sexism] as a woman, but when I became a mother it made it worse,” she says. “When there’s a big socializing aspect of your company culture, that’s not an option for you if you have to commute home to your family and cook dinner. When you don’t get to participate in that part of the work, there are fewer opportunities.”

So, in 2011, she went fully remote doing freelance work and hasn’t looked back. As an introvert, she feels more comfortable and gets more done when working from home. But a decade ago, she says her career suffered because people didn’t take her seriously. “I had to turn down so many great opportunities right up until before the pandemic. Companies would say, ‘If you can’t be here in person, I’m sorry, this isn’t the right opportunity for you,’” she recalls. “I find that so hilarious because a few months later, the whole world changed and those opportunities would have been available to me.” Now, she works as a freelance graphic designer and owns Swell Made Co., a small paper goods and home decor business, while pursuing her master’s in sustainability at Trent University. “I will always continue to work from home,” she says.

Through the pandemic, the world’s new virtual working culture allowed her network to expand. “More opportunities were available to me because they were remote instead of in-person.” Robb hopes post-pandemic professional spaces will be more flexible for those who thrive with remote work. “Employers have an opportunity to lead and provide employees with a variety of situations that work for them,” she says. “Giving people the opportunity to have more agency over what their life looks like is incredibly important.”

Lynne Groulx

CEO of Native Women’s Association of Canada
Citizen of the Métis Nation
Gatineau, Que.

A photo of Lynne Groulx smiling in front of a dark background for a feature on working women during the pandemic

When the pandemic hit, Lynne Groulx had to figure out how to make an Elder-led healing program for Indigenous women virtual. “How do we express spirituality on a Zoom call?” she recalls thinking. “The elders had never done such a thing.” As the CEO of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), she says the pandemic permanently changed the way the non-profit organization operates.

Originally intended to be held in person at NWAC’s Resiliency Lodge in Chelsea, Que., the healing workshops moved online, along with the rest of the organization’s programming. “It significantly shifted the way we did our day-to-day business,” Groulx says. “Having to use technology for all the meetings and not being able to have face-to-face meetings was a cultural challenge.” But thanks to this shift, the program expanded its reach and amassed 10,000 participants from across Canada. “It decentralized our workforce,” Groulx adds. When expanding its programming online, NWAC began hiring people from across Canada to work remotely. “We increased our staff: we were at around 80 people and now we’re close to 140.”

In-person programming at the Resiliency Lodge will open as restrictions lift, but their online workshops are now permanent. Since early March, Groulx has been back working full-time from NWAC’s office in Quebec. “I prefer to be with other people, so I’m very happy about that,” she says. For employees, NWAC has adopted a hybrid work model. “We have a very flexible policy. If staff prefer to [work remotely], they will. But we also have the space for those who prefer to come back.”

She notes that changes brought on by the pandemic were especially difficult for Indigenous communities. “There are layers of systemic issues in communities that are so deep from colonization. When your cup is full and on top of it you pour some more in, it overflows. That’s what happened to the communities.” But looking back, Groulx says one positive result of the pandemic is that online work ultimately improved NWAC’s impact. “The number one priority that we have is the healing and well-being of our communities,” she says. “It warms my heart to know that we can touch this many people unexpectedly.”

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