For many organisations and individuals, the latest transition, as we have learnt to live with Covid, is the shift from the fully remote working model brought about by the pandemic, towards the hybrid model. For some individuals, this has been perceived as the best of both worlds, yet it is also presenting a significant challenge for managers and team cohesion.
Individuals seem to have found their voices as a result of the Covid- era, with 85% of adults working at home in 2021 confirming they wanted to adopt a permanent long-term hybrid working approach (ONS).
Employers fuelled by fears of the Great Resignation, whether real or imagined, have been keen to respond to individual preferences but to balance this with having employees in the office at least part of the week to address concerns regarding innovation, collaboration and creating a sense of organisational cohesion.
This isn’t all new territory of course with many organisations deploying progressive flexible working policies prior to the pandemic. However, for those organisations who did not offer these options, and who are now giving employees a choice over which days to be in the office, some would say this is a significant step towards better flexible working policies for all.
And many women initially seem to report huge benefits of this shift in working. But a closer look raises some important questions on what this could mean for women’s careers long-term.
So in what ways is the ‘hybrid’ model impacting women’s careers positively?
Some early research suggested that this way of working is benefitting women, and from the perspective of work life balance and the split of caring and domestic responsibilities, this might well be the case for some.
- 75% and 76% of women suggested it had improved their productivity and work life balance respectively. (IWG 2022)
- It had improved the distribution of household chores (56%)
- In turn, this had positively improved mental health (38%).
- 55% of women reported better work life balance (HR Magazine).
However as both organisations and individuals collectively try to navigate the new ‘normal’, we should be paying close attention to the positives whilst being mindful that there may be downsides for women’s careers longer term, despite these initially reported upsides. And that employers should be very mindful of the risk factors if they want to avoid gender disparity in this new era.
So what are the risks for women’s careers?
By taking the bold step of empowering employees to choose how they work, there is a strong probability that more women than men opt for more time at home. Studies suggests that flexibility matters to 72% of women under 55 years, compared to only 43% of men aged 55+. (YouGov 2022).
This has the potential to create a gender disparity in the workplace with risks such as:-
Lack of inclusivity and less opportunity to be ‘heard’
- Almost 60% of hybrid-working women report feeling excluded from important meetings. (Deloitte, Women at Work, 2022)
- 45% of business leaders also agreed that it was more difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings (Catalyst)
A negative impact on career progression
- Staggeringly the report also suggested that 94% still felt that a request for flexible working would affect their likelihood of promotion
- A third of managers also agreed that remote workers could be overlooked in promotion terms, with the ONS also suggesting remote workers were less than half as likely as office based workers to be promoted between 2012 and 2020.
- Timewise are one of several highlighting risks regarding ‘proximity bias’, where managers may inadvertently favour those more present in the office.
- Totem Partners Hybrid Working report supports women’s worries in relation to this, with 35% of women concerned about being ‘out of sight, and out of mind’. Negative stereotyping about women’s commitment can also be a part of this perpetual issue.
Well-being and mental health
- Timewise have highlighted the challenges in relation to the well-being and mental health of those who work remotely and manager’s abilities to pick up on mental health challenges of those less present in the office.
- Deloitte also found that 70% of women who have changed their working hours since the pandemic say that their current levels of stress in 2022 are higher than a year ago in 2021. But this may be more indicative of a shift to part-time hours and reflective of workloads. Nevertheless, mental health must be an important consideration when thinking of the impact on women’s careers.
Building relationships in the workplace
Evidence indicates women are less strong at pursuing career-enhancing relationships at work. It is not always easy for them to find role models and to seek out advocates, sponsors or mentors who can help them in career terms. The hybrid model has the propensity for further gender disparity by limiting the time in the office in which women are able to seek out and build these important relationships.
So what are the implications for women and employers?
Both employers and individuals need to be mindful of some of these unintended negative consequences. It would be counter-productive if this opportunity to shape the future era of work, set back women’s career progression rather than helped to evolve it.
Employers can help women to respond to these career risks as they continue to shape and evolve hybrid working policy by addressing some of these key areas:-
- Helping women to think about ways in which they can be visible when working remotely
- Fostering a culture which does not favour ‘in-person’ meetings over remote connections
- Training Managers to be able to better balance the needs of those working remotely and those in the office
- Reviewing performance criteria so that it doesn’t favour ‘presenteeism’ over remote working
- To ensure that technology is just as effective when working at home as it would be in the office
- To ensure that well-being policies cover the needs of individuals regardless of the mode of working
- To find ways of evaluating the hybrid model and regularly ensuring that women have the chance to speak up and voice their concerns.
This remains unchartered territory for most organisations and it is heartening that so many employers are keen to trial new ways of working and are consulting with their employees in the process. This is a chance to learn, re-learn and keep growing and adapting. May it be a silver lining of this pandemic for generations to come.
Kate Mansfield, Programme Director, CCS