Today’s post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member, Natalie Bickford.
As the world is preparing for life post pandemic, organizations are preparing for the return to the workplace. While some are advocating for a wholesale return to five days in the office, and others are moving to fully remote flexibility, the majority are aiming for some form of hybrid working model. On average, companies are outlining policies requiring employees to be in their normal place of work two to three days per week, with the remainder of the time at a location of the employee’s choice.
Eighteen months ago, we would have been heralding this as a major breakthrough in moving to an agile working environment, with a particular advantage being seen through the diversity lens of benefiting (in particular) women with caring responsibilities. And indeed, there is a lot to be said for allowing knowledge workers to have more control over where they spend their time.
What we also knew, however, and what has arguably become even more visible during the Covid-19 crisis, is that women take on the significant majority of family and household responsibilities. While there has been much progress in the equality of women in the workplace, this is not necessarily the case at home. I personally saw this in 2020, where a disproportionate number of women in my previous workplace opted to be furloughed because of the pressures of home schooling, whereas their male colleagues continued to work full time, albeit remotely.
As employees prepare to return, there is arguably a significant risk that men and women’s attendance at the physical workplace will be unbalanced, with many more women choosing to work remotely than their male counterparts. Why should we care about that? Hasn’t lack of flexible work arrangements for women at certain points of their careers been seen as the greatest barrier to female progression?
My supposition is that by working more remotely than men, women will fall behind on promotion opportunities, and if anything, the pay gap will start to widen further. While it is certain that some attitudes towards physical presence will have started to evolve as a result of the last 18 months, even Covid-19 will not have been able to over-turn some 70 years of embedded work culture.
Being physically present, observing long hours, working the water cooler politics, and being available for a quick coffee or a drink after work, have long been the underpinnings of career progression. Being there gets you noticed, and however diligent your output is from home, dependability and conscientiousness allow you to keep your job, rather than necessarily creating opportunities for promotion.
So what can we do to reduce the potential risk around growing gender inequality in the workplace? The first place to look is at home. Dual career families should take this opportunity to reset the division of labor. Arguably for the first time, men and women will have the same opportunity to work flexibly, and now would be a good moment to divvy up caring and home responsibilities in a more balanced way.
Business leaders and managers also have a key role to play. Company policy is one thing, but company culture is quite another. If male and female leaders role-model modern agile working practices, then managers and team leaders will follow suit. If they work away from the office for a couple of days per week, and speak of the positive benefits, then it will become an accepted norm, thus encouraging more male employees to take the same opportunity.
If we can get this new work agility right, and at the same time rebalance the caring responsibilities for the family, then we might just be able to super-charge our progress in workplace gender equality. If we get it wrong, we might just set ourselves back another 20 years.