What can employers do to address the impact of COVID-19 and the “new normal” on gender equality?

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In our previous Law-Nows in this series, we looked at the importance of diversity and inclusion in a recession and how employers can protect their BAME employees. In this article we focus on the potential unintended consequences of long-term flexible working on gender equality in the workplace.

Increased flexibility as the “new normal”

The closure of workplaces as a result of COVID-19 has significantly accelerated the move towards flexible working. We have looked at this issue in-depth as part of our Rebound & Remodel: Future of Work series. Many employers who were previously sceptical have been forced to embrace remote working, technology issues have been overcome and businesses are waking up to the potential cost savings of long-term working from home. From an employee perspective, many are in favour of increased working from home being the “new normal”. This has prompted employers to revisit their workplace strategies with a view to long-term change; some are planning “hub” offices where employees only attend for key meetings, whilst others will allow employees more flexibility to choose how often they attend the office.

Impact from a gender perspective

There are so many positives to this increased flexibility. However, it is important that employers consider the potential gender impact of their plans and in particular ask themselves what impact does their future workplace model have on gender equality?

A recent study by the IFS and the UCL Institute of Education found that amongst those doing paid work from home during lockdown, mothers are more likely than fathers to be spending their working hours simultaneously caring for children. This has resulted in mothers doing, on average, a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours of fathers. Whilst these differences should ease once caring arrangements return to “normal”, we know that even pre-COVID-19, women bore the brunt of caring commitments. This is expected to continue in the “new normal” which makes long-term working from home more appealing to women. In contrast, our anecdotal experience is that male employees, who typically have fewer caring responsibilities, are more likely to want to return to the office on a sustained basis.

So, there are two ways of looking at this: offering flexible working solutions will help female employees balance their work and home lives; however, it could simultaneously result in the creation of what the Fawcett Society is calling a “two tier” workforce, with offices becoming “men’s dens”. Workplaces where one gender dominates in terms of numbers present various challenges for employers.

First of all, it can have a negative impact on an employer’s culture, indicating anything but the inclusive feel most employers want to generate. Employers have spent years trying to achieve gender balanced workplaces for a wide variety of reasons. Having more women in a team promotes the diversity of life experiences and decisions are made through different lenses. The gender balance within an office also affects the social dynamics of team interactions. In the past workplace banter in some all-male environments has been seen by the lone woman in the room as intimidating and depending on the language can involve harassment.

It also potentially impacts who gets what work – the person you chat to multiple times a day at the coffee machine and grab lunch with, or the virtual colleague on the end of the VC? This is probably amplified by an undercurrent of thinking that home-working is the easy option, with those who are really serious about their work making the effort to get to the office. Against this background, who is chosen to lead on the new projects?

It can also affect whose voice is “heard”. While all employees - be they working from home or the office - can be invited to a meeting, as Kevan Jones, Partner at Oliver Wyman, explained on our recent ‘Rebound & Remodel: Future of Work’ webinar, the ‘centre of gravity’ of a meeting is typically in the meeting room, with those at home feeling less connected and involved.

Whilst we are all working from home, these issues have not come to the fore; we are all virtual colleagues. As we start to see more mixed working models emerge, this level playing field will start to tilt and employers need to take proactive steps to manage this.

Forewarned is forearmed

So what can employers do to ensure that their good intentions in embracing flexible working do not have unintended consequences?

Get your messaging right – flexibility isn’t just for women: make it clear it is open to all employees to request to work flexibly, regardless of gender, age, or caring responsibilities (or lack of). Evidence suggests that male employees are statistically less likely to make flexible working requests; anecdotal evidence suggests that on top of that employers are less likely to agree to male employees’ flexible working requests. A clear policy and consistent approach on an organisation’s flexible working arrangements should help to reduce inconsistencies. Oversight from HR will also help, ensuring requests are treated consistently. Managers may also benefit from specific training on an employer’s policy that specifically addresses unconscious bias.

Encourage senior stakeholders to walk the walk: this will help on a couple of levels. Allowing employees to see that even the “most important” roles can be undertaken flexibly helps move away from the misconception that homeworking is somehow less valuable than work carried out in the office. Seeing senior male role models embrace flexible working will help make other male employees to feel comfortable making a request.

Audit: as we move out of lockdown many employers are sending out return to work questionnaires to employees to try to accommodate individual preferences and circumstances; these provide a good opportunity to audit the gender balance of those asking to come back to the office. The output can then feed into an employer’s wider policy on working arrangements, which takes into account the business’ priorities and considers the impact on gender.

Communication: maintaining effective communication with employees during lockdown has been essential. Employers should continue to focus on this as employees start to return to the workplace, ensuring that those who remain working from home continue to not only be kept in the loop but be treated as a core part of the team. Meetings should not by default be led by those in the office with those at home simply “dialling in”. Those at home should be viewed as attending the meeting on an equal footing. Any similar thinking needs to continue around delivering updates – how do you ensure that those not in the office do not miss out on significant news? You need to think about ensuring your comms are sufficiently inclusive. It’s important that this is not just embraced by senior management but by employees across the workforce, so that employees who are out of sight are not also out of mind.

Informal communications are just as important as formal ones, with employees who are working at home missing out on the “water cooler” chats where important but less material information is often shared and relationships built. Employers should consider how these can be replicated with mixed office and home working; it does take more active thinking. Of course employees who have opted to work a significant portion of their time from home will at times be in the office and that will likely help them feel connected. However, it would be a shame if that is the only time they feel “connected” and long term is unlikely to make for a rewarding environment.

Train your leaders to manage differently: this won’t happen automatically and needs a conscious shift of mindset. Busy managers often just want the job done and will opt for the fastest and easiest route to achieve that. Taking time out with them to walk through how they are going to manage their teams in a mixed model of working will be time well spent. It is also a good chance to speak to them about their own plans and whether they will be one of your senior flexible working role models. Essentially there needs to be a cultural mindset shift away from office presenteeism to looking at output and individual productivity.

Keep it under review: both employees’ and employers’ needs are likely to change over time as the world slowly progress to the “new normal”. Employers should monitor the situation, carrying out further surveys and audits to ensure that their approaches to flexible working correspond with those changing needs and do not undermine their diversity and inclusion goals.

There is no doubt that the changes over the past few months have the potential to radically change the way we work. However, it’s important that employers actively consider the possible unintended consequences to ensure that long-term these are changes for the better.

The future

As businesses move out of this crisis and rebuild, we will explore the various issues that employers should consider. We are also eager to hear your stories and please do contact us at [email protected] if you would be interested in sharing how this pandemic has been or may be a platform for diversity or other change within your organisation, rather than a blocker.