Triple Challenges: How Working from Home Affects Household Gendered Roles

The work-from-home norm created by the global pandemic has been redefining how people work and balance their domestic and work-related tasks. Working from home poses double challenges to dual-earner couples: They need to confront the challenges of handling isolated, disconnected remote work while embracing new pressures to handle family responsibilities at home. Past research has shown that husbands and wives have asymmetrically permeable boundaries, and even when they are working from home, husbands may manage to segment work and family activities more successfully than their spouses (Kreiner et al., 2009). For many, the coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented crisis in recent times. So, does the pandemic follow the traditional pattern of gender disparities regarding taking on family responsibilities? How does work-from-home status affect husbands’ and wives’ work productivity and family activities?

We seek to answer these questions with two daily survey studies on cohabitating heterosexual dual-earner couples conducted during the pandemic, which were published in Personnel Psychology. In the first study, we collected 1,559 daily responses from 165 dual-earner couples in China who had at least one child. That study was done near the beginning of the pandemic, in April and May of 2020. In the second study, we gathered information from 773 daily responses of 57 dual-earner couples from South Korea. Some of the dual-earner couples had children, while some did not. This study was conducted later in the pandemic, from June to August 2021. In both studies, all participants completed two surveys each day for 14 consecutive workdays. Each husband and wife reported their work-from-home status and the amount of work and family tasks they completed. They also reported their levels of work-family conflict and family-work conflict, how much guilt they felt toward their families and their work, and their psychological withdrawal from work and family.

Our findings revealed converging and gendered relationships: (1) Working from home (vs. in office) increased family task completion, and wives’ work-from-home status reduced their husbands’ family task completion, but not the other way around. (2) Work task completion increased wives’ work-to-family role conflicts and increased their feelings of guilt toward family, but the same effect was not observed among husbands. However, family task completion increased family-to-work conflicts and feelings of guilt toward work among both husbands and wives. (3) When wives worked from home, they completed more work tasks than when working in office on days that their husbands had flexible work schedules. As for husbands, they completed more family tasks when working from home compared to working in office on days when their wives had less work flexibility.

The gendered messages are clear: As dual-earner couples juggle two remote work schedules along with household and family duties, wives embrace a third layer of challenge. They help their husbands trade off family assignments against work roles and experience more guilt toward family.

So, what will it take to navigate the challenges dual-earner couples, and especially wives, encounter when working from home? Our findings provide some concrete advice for dual-earner couples and organizations responding to remote work. The COVID-19 pandemic has created confusion and upheaval in employees’ lives, and as a novel and landscape-scale crisis, the changes COVID-19 is inflicting on families and livelihoods could last for a long time. However, the implications of our study findings may also apply to post-crisis times as well.

Couples play on the same team. Partners in a dual-earner relationship are not competing with each other, seeking to win more resources and time or be better than the other in terms of work task completion. The most effective and perhaps healthiest couples are the ones who play on the same team, with norms of interaction that are collaborative rather than competitive. Our findings suggest that when both members in dual-earner families are working from home, their spouse’s presence offers a distinct benefit for managing work and family demands during the pandemic. Dual-earner couples can help overcome the challenges posed by these demands by responding as a team and promoting efficiency in both work and family domains.

Work schedule flexibility to male employees. Interestingly, the lack of support we found for the benefits of wives’ high work flexibility for husbands’ work task completion appears to contrast with some prior understandings of the influence of women’s work flexibility. Our findings imply that women may check in more with family regardless of their work arrangement and that women’s flexible work schedules may not benefit their husbands much. Additionally, for dual-earner couples, we found that when husbands have flexibility in scheduling their work time and procedure, they can provide more resources and support for their wives to complete remote work tasks. Organizations and decision-makers may find it particularly useful to empower their male employees with flexibility so they and their families can better adapt to conditions, strategically coordinate, and help each other to accomplish more work and family tasks.

Realistic expectations. Companies and decision-makers should also be mindful that COVID-19 may have forever redefined how people work and how couples manage work and family responsibilities. Our findings could provide relevant implications for how organizations reimagine and prepare for work in the future. While remote work has become a preferred option for many employees and employers, employers should be aware of the challenges it creates for employees trying to manage their work. Our findings show that when employees worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, they showed increased family task completion, which then increased their family-to-work conflict, psychological withdrawal, and feelings of guilt toward work. Managers should develop realistic expectations about how much work their remote employees can effectively handle and show a deeper understanding of dual-earner couples’ home working situations.

Cultural considerations. Our data was collected from dual-earner couples in two Eastern cultures, i.e., China and South Korea. However, our theoretical development is not culturally bounded so we expect that our findings can be generalized to other places around the world. Indeed, dual-earner families have become a common structure worldwide. In married-couple households, two-earner households constituted 46.8% in the United States (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022), over 75% among population aged 25 to 54 in European Union Member States (Eurostat, 2022), 45.4% in South Korea (Yoon, 2022), over 50% in China (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2021), and 66% in Australia (Wilkins et al., 2019). The findings from this research provide some cross-cultural practical implications on how dual-earner couples navigate the boundaries between work and family while working from home.


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