Working from home keeps mothers in employment, according to research - so why do so many companies want to return to the office?

Working from home narrows the motherhood gap in employment, but 90% of companies want to return to the office

A faceless woman typing on a laptop at a kitchen table
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More mothers are in employment thanks to working from home policies, says research, but some companies still want employees to return to the office.

It's not uncommon for new mothers to wonder if it's financially worth returning to work after a baby, but taking this decision has an impact on women's finances and career progression - also known as the motherhood penalty.

Things began to look more positive for mums when the Flexible Working Bill became law in 2023, meaning that employees have greater powers when it comes to requesting variations in their working hours, times and location.

And now there's also research to show that working from home keeps mothers in employment. A new study, titled Has the Rise of Work-from-Home Reduced the Motherhood Penalty in the Labor Market? and conducted by the University of Virginia, found that for every 10 per cent rise in working from home within a sector, the motherhood gap narrowed by almost one per cent - meaning that more mothers were employed in line with more people working from home.

The researchers explained, "These trends suggest that the rise of WFH transformed a broader set of jobs into more family-friendly occupations. Traditionally flexible jobs in sectors like education and pharmacy were relatively unaffected by the rise of WFH, while motherhood employment gaps narrowed in traditionally family-unfriendly fields like finance and marketing."

The study added, "Work from home (WFH) may help mothers juggle work and child-care responsibilities. In time diaries, mothers who work from home report that they spend more than a third of their working time passively taking care of children, compared to negligible rates on-site.

"WFH may also reduce the logisitical costs of working by making it easier for mothers to, for example, pick up a sick kid from school or drop off a healthy kid at soccer practice."

A woman sat on a sofa working on a laptop next to a cat

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The findings come after prominent figures including Lord Alan Sugar, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and James Dyson urged people to make a return to the office, reversing the working from home habits formed in the pandemic.

In fact, Lord Alan Sugar has previously attracted criticism for suggesting that people should be "paid less" for working at home.

And, meanwhile, a report by Resume Builder found that 90 per cent of companies would like to return to the office by the end of 2024.

But author and founder of Mother Pukka Anna Whitehouse, who is also behind the Flex Appeal campaign for more flexible working, told The Independent that being able to work from home is crucial for mothers.

She said: "It’s interesting that billionaires who have nannies helicoptered everywhere and have no idea what it takes to raise a family or the burden on women say this.

"It’s all very well to say ‘go back to the office’ from an ivory tower but you’re not existing in the average person’s shoes so you shouldn’t be speaking for them. A billionaire will never understand what it’s like to do the school run."

Meanwhile, GoodtoKnow's Deputy Editor and mum-of-three, Heidi Scrimgeour, explains her experience with working from home as a mother. She says: "I went self-employed when I had my first child and continued freelancing for 15 years so that I could work around raising my family, so when I was offered a permanent WFH role a few years ago I jumped at the chance to return to employment. There's no way I could do my job if WFH was scrapped - remote working affords me essential flexibility that makes being a working parent possible, from being here for a hug when my kids get home from school to popping on yet another load of laundry while I'm making a cuppa and waiting for the kettle to boil."

She added, "Without remote working there's no question that I'd leave the workforce and return to self-employment, but I feel sad about the years I missed out on benefits like pension contributions and sick pay because self-employment seemed like the only option. More companies need to recognise the value of remote working for parents and grasp that in return for flexibility they're likely to get a more loyal, engaged and productive workforce."

Heidi's experience rings true for many parents, and this isn't the first time that scientific research has backed up the benefits of flexible working for mums. A 2021 report published by the think tank Resolution Foundation found that 74 per cent of mothers to children who are aged between 0 and three were in work, compared to 68 per cent of mothers in 2019 and 2017.

One in 10 mothers in a relationship said that remote working had allowed them to either take up a job or increase their working hours since February 2020, while just five per cent of fathers and three per cent of women without children said the same.

Resolution Foundation said that the rise in remote working could lead to permanent increase in women’s participation in the workforce.

They added, "As we have recommended before, policy makers and employers alike should support working parents, no matter their gender, to balance work and childcare without detriment to their longer-term career prospects."

If you're thinking about making a change to your work life after having a baby, we've detailed the average childcare costs in the UK and how much it costs to raise a child. You might also be interested to know how maternity pay is calculated, and what benefits you can claim while on maternity leave.

Ellie Hutchings
Family News Editor

Ellie is GoodtoKnow’s Family News Editor and covers all the latest trends in the parenting world - from relationship advice and baby names to wellbeing and self-care ideas for busy mums. Ellie is also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and has a distinction in MA Magazine Journalism from Nottingham Trent University and a first-class degree in Journalism from Cardiff University. Previously, Ellie has worked with BBC Good Food, The Big Issue, and the Nottingham Post, as well as freelancing as an arts and entertainment writer alongside her studies. When she’s not got her nose in a book, you’ll probably find Ellie jogging around her local park, indulging in an insta-worthy restaurant, or watching Netflix’s newest true crime documentary.