For years, American corporations tried to increase job flexibility with scant success. The pandemic ushered in more flexibility, along with added responsibilities and few boundaries. For women, who typically shoulder more duties at home regardless of their breadwinning status, that has felt less like freedom than pressure to be always on.

We’re seeing the consequences in our sixth annual Women in the Workplace study, a joint effort by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org that is the largest annual benchmark of women’s progress in American corporations. More than one in four women say they may now quit or scale back their jobs. Among women at the managerial level and above, 30% want to step down or out. As a group, women could lose more than five years of gains across the career pipeline.

This is not simply a pause on the road to a more equitable workplace. This year’s report finds women feeling pushed to a point that is unsustainable, for reasons that go beyond home schooling and child care. LGBTQ+ women report mental-health challenges at almost twice the rate of other women. Latinas are most likely to worry about layoffs, while Black women are three times as likely as others to be dealing with the death of a family member from Covid-19. Among working mothers, 40% now spend at least three extra hours a day on child care and housework. Together, these issues could prompt up to two million women to quit over the next year—more than the number who will earn college and graduate degrees during the same period.

It doesn’t have to be this way. While the sudden shift to working from home is challenging, it also illustrates the opportunity. Even during these chaotic times—with constant doorbells, kids jumping on Zoom calls, sick family members and all the things we do to keep Covid at bay—people have stayed productive. Imagine what could happen if we really embraced flexibility, which involves more than just choosing where to work. Instead of losing ground, we might experience a revolution of more productive—and happier—workers from all different backgrounds.

As we move from crisis mode to the new normal, let’s adapt our cultures, norms and processes to help employees thrive, regardless of when or where they work. Here are three questions to ask:

1. How can we design roles that enable employees to achieve professional and personal goals? Flexibility and productivity are not mutually exclusive. The laptop in your living room, once a symbol of freedom, too often is now a symbol that the office never goes away. Instead of measuring clicks on a keyboard, we need to focus on outcomes and engagement. In a world without commutes and cubicles, people need time to pause, develop and connect with colleagues—then turn off to be with their families and friends

2. How do we deliver on equity and inclusion in virtual settings? Companies that rank high on diversity have more-engaged employees and better results. Black women are especially skeptical about their employers’ commitment to diversity. That should be a warning bell to the nearly 30% of companies that have put some of their diversity and inclusion programs on hold during the crisis. Clear communication is a start, but the issues that isolate and alienate people at the office can become more pronounced when working from home.

3. How do we demonstrate empathy and an authentic commitment to values? Leaders need to embody the values that they’re promoting to employees. While more than half of employees say senior leaders are supportive of greater work flexibility, only 26% used flexible programs without feeling push back or stigma. Managers need new tool kits to lead remote teams. That includes everything from new forms of communications and connection to job structures and reviews that make it possible for everyone to succeed.

None of this will be easy. Covid-19 has devastated families and communities in ways that could take years to recover. Businesses that know women’s leadership matters need to reimagine how to achieve it in this new world of work. Just as leaders have taken steps to reshape their businesses, they now have an opportunity to reshape how we work in ways that benefit everyone.

Mr. Sneader is the managing partner of McKinsey & Co., based in New York, and Ms. Yee is a senior partner and chief diversity and inclusion officer, based in San Francisco.

Women in the Workplace

This article is part of a Wall Street Journal special report on women, men and work based on a study by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in the September 30, 2020, print edition as ‘As Women Fight to Maintain Progress, Companies Must Reimagine Themselves.’

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