Companies say they want to retain caregivers—yet turn their backs on flexible, remote work

Granddaughter helping to measure grandmother's blood pressure.
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We begin, as they say, with some personal news.

My mother died this month, just two weeks after her 93rd birthday. Hers was a slow and painful decline, and I was grateful to be with her at the end of her life. I’ve written about this experience and the unique pressures facing caregivers of color here.

Her death released me from a nearly three-year journey as a member of the sandwich generation, straddling the gap of caring for both a young family and vulnerable elders while navigating, in my case, the often byzantine and overlapping systems of Medicare, Medicaid, the courts, and the agencies that provided extraordinary caregivers. I would have been lost without all of these resources.

As challenging as this time has been, many things went right in my life that allowed me to keep her safe in her home until the end. Aside from my amazing husband, one stands out above all the rest. I was lucky to be in a profession that allows me to work from home. Without that flexibility, everything I care about—her health, my family’s economic and emotional well-being, my career, my sense of purpose, and access to an audience I cherish—would have been at risk.

And yet, the debate rages on whether, when, and how to foster a hybrid workforce. (One look at Fortune’s coverage will give you a strong sense of the issue’s intensity.) Although research shows that some in-person office days can produce more engaged employees, it’s not the number of days that matters. It turns out that regular, meaningful conversations—about work, goals, well-being, etc.—help employees feel connected to a company’s culture and its broader mission.

And that kind of leadership—in which managers build relationships via empathy, interest, and compassion—can happen anywhere. 

But the bigger issue at play is the opportunity cost of rejecting flexibility—an early, breathless promise of the technological age—and what it means for parents, caregivers, and people with disabilities, who grew their overall participation in the workforce during the pandemic in part because new tech tools allowed for more inclusive work accommodations.

It’s about committing to a new and better way.

“We’ve been stuck in the same corporate work norms since the late 1940s when many families could live comfortably on one paycheck and just a third of women worked outside of the home,” wrote Erin Grau, cofounder and chief operating officer of Charter, a future-of-work media and research company, in a recent Fortune opinion piece. “By reimagining when, where, and even how we work, we can make meaningful progress toward gender equality and address the dramatic underrepresentation of women and people of all underrepresented genders in our companies.”

But, as I said, I just got lucky.

My mom survived two abusive marriages, but later, two wonderful ones. We escaped my father’s violence when I was 10, and with only a high school education, she managed to find a job that got us out of homelessness. Even without meaningful access to credit, she built a small business and employed only women who needed work. She hated injustice. She was fierce and funny and loved the spotlight.

Her last words, and last laugh, were on my birthday.

After a week of bedside hospice, she woke up a bit. “I’m still here?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “Actually, today’s my birthday. So, this is your last chance to upstage me.” She gave a real heartfelt guffaw, then fixed her eyes on mine for one last zinger. “Well, it’s only because I didn’t know what day it was.”

Two days later, she was gone.

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ruth Umoh.

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Parting Words

“Remote work is the future of work.”

—Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian wrote in 2018 

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