A lack of flexible working – or acceptance of this model – has been highlighted time and again as a barrier to women’s progression in the workplace.
In 2018, PwC found that 36 percent of women felt that taking advantage of work-life balance and flexibility programs would have negative career consequences. The following year, a report by the Government Equalities Office noted that flexibility could help women to maintain their labor market position following the transition to parenthood – but only within a supportive workplace culture.
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Considering the above, we might suppose that the COVID-19 pandemic would benefit women in the workplace. It has removed the stigma from home working and opened the door to a hybrid future where parents can more easily juggle work and caring responsibilities. This is particularly applicable to women, as research continues to show that they shoulder the lion’s share of childcare commitments.
However, this is not necessarily the case for two reasons: hybrid working is not the same as flexible working and, unchecked, this model could present its own set of challenges to women’s career progression.
The Differences Between Hybrid and Flexible Working
While often confused, hybrid and flexible working are two very different models. Flexible working is where employees are given the option to work flexible hours to help work fit around their lives.
Often for women, this involves starting later to drop children off at school or finishing earlier to pick them up.
Hybrid working involves splitting work between multiple locations. At the moment this may be the home and the workplace – but this is not necessarily the case. This can offer employees more flexibility in terms of where they work, but not necessarily when they work.
As we see more and more businesses adopt this model, it’s important that HR and business leaders remember this. They still need to work with women within their organizations to ensure they have the flexibility they require – regardless of whether they are offering a hybrid working model.
The Additional Challenges Posed by Hybrid Working
In a hybrid working future, organizations need to ensure the workplace does not become the default seat of power. This could happen if business leaders regularly go into the workplace and use this for the majority of decision-making.
If this becomes the case, then cultural and behavioral norms – along with entrenched biases – will need to be challenged to ensure that the remote workers are not at a disadvantage.
Research indicates that showing face at work leads to career advancement because it is a strong signal of an individuals’ commitment to their job, their team, and their organization.
Business and HR leaders need to really resist adopting such superficial metrics because if we follow the research, more women have shown a greater preference to work from home than men. This is supported by a recent CMI poll, which found that 69% of mothers want to work from home at least once a week after the pandemic, versus just 56% of fathers.
This means they will be more likely to suffer the implications of a lack of facetime – and could be locked out of decision making and overlooked for promotion.
This, in turn, could have long-term ramifications for gender diversity in the business. If fewer women progress to leadership roles, their perspectives can become underrepresented at the management and board level and women’s issues de-prioritized. This can make the business a poor employer of women, impacting its ability to recruit and retain them.
How Organizations Can Avoid This by Deferring to Data
While leaders can be aware of these issues, and look to avoid them, this is not a fail-safe approach. This is why, as organizations adopt new working structures, it’s imperative they defer to data to ensure these are not having any unintended consequences.
If organizations adopt a hybrid structure, leaders need to keep track of which demographics are working out of the workplace and how frequently. They can then correlate this with data on the kind of work people are doing – or on pay and promotions. If they see that more women are working from home, and that home workers are being given less challenging work or fewer promotions, then they know they have a real problem on their hands.
It’s also important that they marry quantitative and qualitative data, as these can tell different stories. It can also be months before data trends relating to progression become really visible, so HR and business leaders need to make sure they’re asking employees how they feel about new structures and whether they’re seeing any biases at play.
Mitigating Risk and Grasping Opportunity
While the mass transition to hybrid working could pose a new set of challenges to women in the workplace, and specifically working mothers, this does not have to be the case. If implemented correctly, alongside other support measures, it could offer more flexibility, help families better juggle and distribute childcare commitments and aid women’s progression.
Which outcome comes to pass though, will depend on the culture of the organization and whether HR and business leaders take a data-based approach to workforce design and organizational planning.
Business leaders must treat any radical change in the workforce model, such as the transition to hybrid working, as a prototype. Before making this shift permanent, they should look at the data and hear from employees. They can then make an informed decision on whether their chosen structure has worked – or could have negative consequences down the line.