Future of Us: The pandemic offered workers a golden opportunity – but inequities to navigate

A woman sits cross legged in a chair and types on a laptop
University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management professor Theresa Glomb poses for a portrait in her St. Paul home on April 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

This story is part of a series called “The Future of Us,” exploring how a pandemic, a murder and a city on fire have changed us and our path forward.

In March 2020, many Minnesotans began working under a stay-at-home order. Seemingly overnight, businesses scrambled to find new ways of doing things and make it possible for employees to work remotely. Employees who couldn’t work from home took on a new title – essential worker – and all the risks that came with it. 

Though that stay-at-home order has long since been lifted, the way we work didn’t snap back to what it used to be – and it likely never will. Nearly 24 percent of Minnesotans work from home at least three days a week, according to a U.S. Census survey conducted in February. That’s up from 6.4 percent in 2019.

Theresa Glomb, a professor of organizational behavior in the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, is paying close attention to what these changes to the way we work could mean for equity.

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“I think there's still some differential thought about flexible work arrangements and how they play out,” she said, adding that research shows promotion rates are lower for employees who are in the office less because they work a four-day week. 

A woman works on her computer.
Jackie Jiran, 48, left her job in 2021 for one that allows her to work from home. “I am able to, in a way, have it all,” she says.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Glomb said that if management perceptions don’t follow this new flexibility in where and when we work, existing pay gaps may widen. Data shows women and people of color are more likely to prefer working from home.

What’s more, there’s a clear divide in the kinds of workers who can work from home. Lower-paid service and manufacturing industry employees often don’t have that option. Glomb worries this divide could worsen inequities in other areas, such as education.  

“If we have parents who are working from home and parents who are unable to work from home, those parents who are working from home may be able to support their children better or help them with homework,” she said.

A homemade sign in St. Paul praises workers during coronavirus pandemic.
In St. Paul's North End, a homemade lawn sign praises people who must work during the coronavirus pandemic.
Paul Tosto | MPR News

But Glomb also sees a lot of good in this paradigm shift – good that extends to those who can’t work remotely, too. 

With a tight labor market and fresh evidence that work can be done differently, employees across sectors have the upper hand in asking for flexible schedules, more pay and better accommodations. 

“There was a lot of talk about the great resignation, and I think that term is a little bit inaccurate. I like the term ‘the great reshuffle’ instead,” Glomb said. “I think what we saw wasn't people giving up on work; they were trading up.” 

Glomb said much of that movement happened among workers in lower-paid jobs.

Another change she sees affecting broad swaths of workers: a new focus on employee mental health. Glomb said she’s seeing some companies step up to ensure employees maintain a good work-life balance when there’s little physical separation between the two. That includes a company that is experimenting with shutting down its email system at night.  

“That's the one thing that I would say is, organizations, test things out,” Glomb said. “Until we get something that works, it's going to be awkward and it's going to be clumsy. It's not going to be perfect right away. But I think if we can take this time to pause and reflect and rethink work, we've got an opportunity here to make work better for people.”

Hear the full Future of Us conversation with Glomb using the audio player above.