Coming Back Better - Week 1 - A more inclusive approach to flexible working

Posted on June 16, 2020 at 09:34 AM

flexible working

A clear call for much greater flexibility and more access to remote working for all has been issued on the back of this crisis.  Nearly everyone we spoke to said that they expected to be given more personal choice, control and freedom in determining how and when they work from home, and that organisations need to be less hierarchical and elitist when it comes to their remote working policies. 

“Companies say that they promote flexible working, or they have policies for it, but the behaviour of managers doesn’t always back this up in practice and reality.  Leaders really need to show they mean it, that it is acceptable – and encouraged - to have periods of working from home” said one senior bank employee. 

Managers and HR teams should take a hard look at their policies to ensure that – as far as possible – the policies are equitable and are not unnecessarily restrictive or selective in who is able to take advantage of flexible working arrangements.  “Companies also need to understand that flexibility should be encouraged for everyone, not just those with families and caring duties, but for those with pets or those who want to do a yoga class at 9am”, said an IT specialist. 

Much of the investment in infrastructure terms may now have been done; many organisations have offered support to employees by providing equipment and setting them up in a workspace at home with a desk, chair, screen, mouse, or headset for those who were office based.  Companies should now capitalise on that investment and encourage people to continue working remotely when it suits them.  “This has finally blown traditional working methods out of the water.  Presenteeism needs to be consigned to history”, commented one HR professional.  Now that many employees have proved they can make it work, that they can be just as productive when not in the office, this is an opportunity to extend that flexibility. 

Of course, it hasn’t worked for everyone, and some have found that their productivity has dropped.  Managers may need to get better at engaging people from a distance, deepen their understanding of work psychology, of how to motivate people in the why, connecting them to their purpose, to colleagues.

Research in the area indicates that women are likely to be more disadvantaged by the Covid19 crisis and its fallout compared to men (e.g., The World Economic Forum, The National Bureau of Economic Research).  In the latter paper, Alon and his colleagues postulate that, whilst this particular economic downturn is likely to have disproportionately affected women, there are potential positive implications for gender equality.  The authors argue that the ‘normalisation’ of flexible, remote working patterns throughout this crisis will result in these practices being more widespread and acceptable and that many fathers have had to take primary or shared responsibility for childcare, which could erode social norms. 

Again, it will take sustained effort, considered action and potential policy changes in order to realise these benefits.  In an article by Colleen Ammerman and Boris Groysberg (Harvard Business Review, May 2020), the authors cite their concerns that women’s careers could “become collateral damage” in the aftermath of the global pandemic.  They say that, unless some critical steps are taken and biases managed, organisations could face long-term talent problems in their failure to take advantage of the positive shift in the battle for gender inclusion that could result from the crisis.

In particular they cite the ‘motherhood penalty’ and ‘fatherhood premium’; a bias that means that women are viewed less favourably for having childcare responsibilities whilst for men, being seen in a caregiving role can be a boost for their reputation.  They also

We’ve taken their advice for leaders and HR and expanded it.  These are some key areas of active focus and attention in our bid to ‘come back better’:

  • Be even more aware of the divergent biases toward fathers and mothers. Challenge any conversation, process or practice where a woman’s (or a man’s) competence is judged or related in any way to their caregiving roles.
  • Avoid the temptation to increase the pressure on staff, even in the face of predicted shortfalls, absence of new business and operational challenges. “Identify what really matters, and ask people to devote their best effort, whatever that means. By setting reasonable expectations about the amount of time employees can be expected to spend on work, you’ll get exponentially greater engagement”, say the authors.
  • Run virtual meetings equitably and inclusively. The authors point to the opportunity that online meetings present for people to have ‘side conversations’ on a chat bar, alongside the actual discussion, that could serve to undermine their colleagues and decisions being made.  As men have shown to develop closer-knit networks and personal ties and that women tend to be more transactional in their dealings with colleagues, this could mean that women are treated less equitably in virtual meetings than in face to face ones.  As managers, before meetings you could remind people that they should be sharing their views with the full group and not conducting side conversations that exclude others.  If you become aware of this happening, address it directly with the individuals involved and make it clear that these exchanges are unacceptable.  We’d love to know if anyone had a frank conversation with Vaughan Gething after his ‘mic still on’ blunder during a Welsh Assembly Zoom meeting - he later tweeted his embarrassment and said he’d contacted his colleague to apologise and we’re sure that those involved all learned a valuable lesson in online conduct.
  • Just as in the ‘normal’ workplace, make sure that women have a seat at the virtual table. This means being mindful of those who have had to adjust their working hours so that two parents can cover childcare responsibilities, and avoiding the instinct to ‘huddle’ with smaller groups of decision-makers to make the discussion process quicker and easier, whilst having to deal with the technological challenges of getting many voices present.  They say that leaders need to take the extra time to think about whether they are including everyone who should have input, and encourage those who manage others to do the same.  As we are likely to see more people working from home in the future, we need to continue to do this.
  • We think it’s also a clear opportunity for managers to develop their meetings management and chairing skills for the virtual environment: we’ve all experienced that awkward moment when someone asks a good open question which, face to face, might generate a healthy discussion. Virtually, it usually means that everybody speaks, or no-one speaks.  These brilliant sketches by Tripp and Tyler – although made about five years ago - resonate even more now and highlight how Tripp Crosby might have benefited from some specific training in this area, and could have helped to ensure that Dave’s input wasn’t completely overlooked.  Inviting people in to contribute, by name, directing specific questions at them, allowing people ample time for preparation, a clear agenda and points at which people will be required to contribute and keeping an eye on who has spoken less frequently and recently are all simple ways of making online meetings work better for everyone.
  • Beware of other ways in which social media or online interaction might be used within the team that could exclude groups or individuals. The rise of the virtual pub quiz, for instance, might see teams developing within teams which leads to feelings of marginalisation or isolation in those who are unable or disinterested in participating.  Ammerman and Groysberg say that, as leaders, you should be modelling an inclusive approach by ensuring that you are not spending more time in informal interactions with certain people, or spending more time checking in with specific individuals just because you have more in common and more to share on non-work matters.

It's obviously not just gender that is an issue: we know that there are a number of minority groups and specific demographics that have been more impacted by the Covid crisis than others, whether that be in mortality and infection rates or because they work in sectors or roles that have seen higher rates of furloughing or unemployment.  Coming back better has to mean more inclusivity on all fronts; being more mindful of our biases, greater awareness of how our decisions and behaviour impact on those that work for and with us.  And more proactive, decisive, sustained action at all levels to remove structural inequality from the equation altogether in our new, blended home/work environments.

To help you decide what's important in your organisation, we have developed an Engagement Questionnaire designed specifically to provide you insight as to how employees feel about the return, or continuing as they are, what they really need from their manager and peers, and what they want to abandon.  Ultimately, this will give you a strong steer to your short and medium-term OD priorities.  There are some T&Cs, but we are making no charge to use it.  Why not join those who have already made plans to use it?

We hope you'll join us next week when the focus will be resilience-building and business continuity.

If you have any questions in the meantime do please get in touch.

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