You may have seen the recent comments, picked up in a variety of media articles, about the potential career impact on women of working from home. In short, it will harm their career, or so the thinking goes. If you missed it, here’s a summary (with some comments from me) by People Management. Whilst these particular comments were made by a Bank of England economist, they aren’t the first of late to suggest we all need to go back to the office if we don’t want our careers to stall.
On one hand, comments like these make me want to howl. I am so frustrated that we are still having this conversation, echoing these warnings.
But on the other hand…. Yeah. It’s probably true.
And that is what makes me even more angry. We know from research prior to the pandemic that working remotely (or more flexibly in generally) led to a whole range of issues for those undertaking it. From career stagnation to reduced opportunities for reward and recognition and on to marginalisation, flexible work is stigmatised. Those undertaking perceived as less committed, less motivated, less ‘ideal worker’.
Stereotyped gender norms are at play here, where women are still expected to be primarily responsible for childcare and domestic labour, while men go out and do the breadwinning. In the hybrid world this results in women wanting to work from home more often than their male counterparts to allow them to balance these different priorities. Then the negative career consequences follow.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. It really doesn’t.
But it might be – if we don’t take action.
This isn’t only an issue for women, but anyone who cannot play a role in the 9-5, office based performance. The culture war is in full swing. Get back round the watercooler, off your Peloton, and so on and so on. Those that benefited from the old ways, the office structure, want it back. Those that want something else…. well they get to face the consequences.
If we want change, we need to take action. Collectively, urgently. This is far from an exhaustive list (and there is no quick win, silver bullet to be found) but just a few of the things that we can do to try and ensure that hybrid work does not result in the issues – and exclusion – of the past.
- Take a zero tolerance approach to hybrid ‘banter’. This is not that much different to the banter that flexible workers were subject to before the pandemic. It’s the sarcastic comment, the raised eyebrow, the throwaway comment that implies you aren’t pulling your weight, might be doing the housework or sitting on the sofa whilst working remotely. Undermining and insidious, there is no excuse – and everyone can take responsibility for calling this out when they see it.
- Talk to people about unconscious bias against flexible and hybrid workers. Train people managers and meeting facilitators. Include this into your existing training programmes. We need to be aware of the potential for proximity bias, presence disparity, how in and out groups can emerge, and how for some remote workers out of sight really does lead to out of mind – especially when it comes to promotion and reward time.
- Talk to people about their early experiences of hybrid work, with a focus on the inclusion aspects of it. Are any difficulties or challenges arising already? One organisation I work for is holding focus groups with newly hybrid workers to identify their initial perspectives or concerns. Don’t wait for problems to arise – get ahead of them now so that prompt can be taken on emerging issues.
- Train meeting facilitators in effective hybrid meetings. They need to know how to create equality in the space, deliver opportunity for everyone to be heard and to contribute – whether in the office or at home. In an effectively run hybrid meeting no one joining remotely should be marginalised.
- Set up robust monitoring systems on pay, promotion and recognition to identify whether any differences are emerging between those who are more regularly in the office versus those more frequently at home.
- Stand against presenteeism in its every form. Going into the office to be seen. Managers asking people to go in to the office just in case or because they are there themselves. Rewarding long hours cultures. Expecting immediate responses. Gut instinct performance assessments. Digital presenteeism and leavism too. The performance of work helps no one – and further works against those who have other responsibilities.
- Stand against presence / office bias too in its every form. Leaders and managers need to own this. There should be no circumstances in which decisions are made only by an in-person crowd. Where meetings take place even if there’s a problem with remote colleagues joining. Where meetings don’t have a join remotely option. Where training is only available in-person. Look hard at where this might show up and make the necessary amendments now before the negative career implications begin.
- Promote every form of flexible work, from time location to Shared Parental Leave, to every single employee. This stop’s being a woman’s issue when it is everyone’s issue.
Without action we will end up with that predicted two track workforce. The in-person worker idealised and recognised and rewarded, and the remote worker marginalised and demonised.
It doesn’t have to be this way.