Last Sunday, I checked in by phone on my friend and fellow faculty member whom I hadn’t seen during the whole of the previous week. As I feared, the whole family was on self-isolation. An aide at the nursery where they brought their kids had tested positive for Covid-19, and as a precautionary measure they all remained home while awaiting the results of their PCR tests.

At my university we took the most difficult option of simultaneously teaching in person and remotely (because of which we got enrolments in record numbers despite a tuition fee hike). If necessary, faculty could always teach from their own homes or offices. So even if my colleague stayed home, there is no reason for anyone to complain. Or is there?

In tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Salesforce, workers with kids who stay home during this pandemic have been getting the heat from their co-workers without parenting duties. The latter complain they have to pick up the slack at work for the same pay. Accommodations for parents working from home eat up company resources with no added benefit. Some admit they simply feel lonely at their jobs and miss the company, taking a dip in their mental health. More than just friendly colleagues, they seem to consider co-workers as surrogate family almost. What’s telling is that these grievances come from employees who feel they have sacrificed their youth and fertility to the firm, renouncing to have families of their own. Now they feel short-changed with the company’s attention and care being lavished on others. It’s understandable they feel jealous, but are they right? Is the arrangement unfair?

It would be wrong, perhaps even illegal, to discriminate against workers for becoming parents, forcing them to choose between their jobs or their children. If at all, working from home means working more, not less, as they also have to mind the kids and supervise their remote schooling. A common observation is that working from home often translates into extended hours as boundaries are blurred and job and family tasks bleed into each other. Then there’s the tendency to overcompensate at work, precisely because from home there’s no face-time with the boss. (The fear of being the last to get promoted or the first to get laid off helps.) Working moms with small children are especially vulnerable and run the risk of dropping out of employment altogether. Yet a study on Chinese call centre workers reveals greater productivity (processing more calls) at home, not only due to longer hours, but also because it was more quiet; besides, people had fewer sick days.

There are several ways in which parents working from home become even less of a burden on company resources. They pay their own utilities such as electricity, water, and internet connection. They free up space for social distancing requirements and help shorten elevator queues at office towers. More importantly, it would be easier for them to remain Covid-free, and even if they fell sick, they wouldn’t contribute to spreading the virus.

Most of today’s workplaces, sadly, were designed for a different age, when professional, productive activity was centred on physical paper and measured by bundy clocks. Not that we’ve gotten rid of “paper-pushing”, but with the current IT and telecom infrastructure, most of it is done metaphorically now, through attachments. And communication, at least the transmission of data and information, of voice and images, has never been easier, both synchronously and asynchronously. So there’s hardly any need for people to be present in the same physical space for work to proceed. That’s the case even in education, it is claimed, although the jury is still out as to how effective the experiment will be. 

Then it’s not unfair to give working parents some margin to mind their children and work from home, especially during the pandemic. The same would apply to taking care of sick relatives or the elderly. Nothing due is taken away from the single, unattached employees or those without children by allowing for this set-up. If one day they were to find themselves in the same situation, they could also take advantage and benefit from the same largesse. Maybe a little more empathy among tech workers is in order.

As for my friend and his family, I’ve just learned they’re all free of Covid, thankfully.

Republished with permission from Alejo José G. Sison’s blog, Work, Virtues, and Flourishing

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...