How hybrid work can impact your personal profile, career progression and, in particular, women and underrepresented people.

Prompted by a thought-provoking article entitled Could The New Hybrid Workplace Turn Some Women Into Second-Class Employees? we take a closer look at what’s behind the post-pandemic research and how to overcome potential pitfalls.

COVID and careers collide

Collectively, the statistics make for a worrying read:

  • Working mothers reduced their working hours while doing the majority share of domestic duties and caregiving.
  • In 2020, women left the workforce at four times the rate of men.
  • Over 33% of women who left or lost their jobs during the pandemic have not returned.
  • 25% of women are considering downsizing their career or leaving work completely.
  • Women have lost 2.4 million jobs since February 2020, resulting in a female workforce where it was in the 1980s.
  • 19% of women, but only 7% of men, said they never want to return to in-person work.
  • Women are 26% more likely than men to apply to work remotely, and those with access to remote work are leaving their jobs in the greatest numbers.
  • Female graduates with children want to work from home 50% more than male.
  • 97% of C-suite professionals say women benefit from being able to work at home, yet over 70% of executives say remote and flex employees may be passed over for leadership positions. 

This raises so many questions: What are organisations doing to support people who choose to work from home? How can we ensure unconscious bias doesn’t adversely impact those who are ‘out of sight’? What can business leaders and communicators do to make sure that women and underrepresented people are not being further excluded from opportunities?

Interestingly, the recruitment sector reports more women than ever are applying for roles because of the flexibility now being offered by organisations. However, what happens to these women once appointed? By not being ‘visible’ in the office all the time, will they be offered the same opportunities to grow and progress?

Part of our strategic work with organisations includes representation, diversity and equality. If these disturbing trends continue, organisations will have to take even bigger steps and make super efforts not to exclude more people than they are already.

So why are more women and underrepresented groups choosing to work from home rather than the office?

For many, home is a comfortable space that aligns with the responsibilities that define both their life and work. For some it’s the residual conditioning of the Coronavirus “Stay home. Stay safe” message. For others, such as introverts or underrepresented people, being surrounded by creature comforts is sheltered from a work environment that lacks psychological safety.

Whatever the motivation, no one should ever feel or be disadvantaged from having a choice. But the signs of disenfranchisement are already surfacing – as a result of unconscious bias and lack of visibility.

The presence of presence.

Individuals who are not in the office as regularly as others seem to be overlooked when it comes to involvement and opportunities, simply because they’re not there. They’re missing out on exposure within the usual chain of command as well as interaction across departments.

It’s easy to engage more readily and create bonds with those in close proximity. Organisations need to quash this unconscious bias worming its way into everyday managerial practice or collaborative teamwork, which can have detrimental effects on people not in the line of vision.

A great example can be seen in an episode from the hit US comedy series Friends, where Rachel Green takes up smoking to feel more included at work. It’s a sadly comic example of how we can be ignored if we are not seen in the places where decisions are being made. Essentially, it’s about being front of the mind and included in discussions as/when opportunities arise, regardless of whether we work in an office or not.

The opposite can also be true. Leaders who frequently work from home may feel more affinity with those in the team who also work from home, leaving office workers on the sidelines.

The hybrid working hype

But hybrid working isn’t new: people have been working remotely – from home, in cars, in coffee shops – for decades.

What’s changed is that organisations are playing catch-up to put in place structures, policies and procedures to formalise a different way of working popularised by the pandemic. With our fixation on ‘hybrid working,’ we’re in danger of overlooking the opportunity to revolutionise how we work: what Jenni terms The Pandemic Revolution.

The short-term spike in more flexible roles must translate into fundamental organisational change to ensure choice means inclusivity in the long term. Like most things, this will take time to manifest itself, and hinges on having processes robust enough so that, when it comes to advancement, it doesn’t matter where we are but on the outcomes of what we do. 

Mind the gap

The challenge comes in accommodating the ad-hoc “can you pop into this meeting” moments. These seem to fade away when we’re no longer in-person but conscientiously working remotely on specific tasks. It’s these impromptu moments that build both relationships and experience in readiness for promotion and opportunities at the executive level – an echelon that regrettably remains elusive to women and underrepresented people. 

It’s an organisation’s responsibility to devise creative ways to engage and involve individuals. Yet it’s an individual’s responsibility to devise creative ways to show up. If we don’t make the effort to consider how to navigate the potential gap of not being seen in the workplace we’ll disappear, and people – colleagues and managers – will forget that we’re there.

Networking is a powerful tool when it comes to being on the radar for involvement in projects or promotion. See our podcast How not to be weird when you’re networking for insights into internal networking and tips on how to do it.  

Comfortable being uncomfortable

To grow and have opportunities, means stepping outside of a comfort zone. We can’t be comfortable all the time. Waiting for things to come to us just because we’re in a place of comfort doesn’t work for anybody. We must do things differently to progress.

If we don’t feel encouraged to leave our safe space or accepted for who we are as an individual, then we will stay firmly in our bubble. The risk of home working is that we become so comfortable in our happy place that the effort to put ourselves out there becomes overwhelming, so we just don’t bother.

For example, if it becomes obvious as a person of colour that we’re different from the majority in the room, and if that environment doesn’t allow us to be who we need to be, then we will hold back. It is here that line managers must step up to support an individual’s ability to thrive and – gently nudge if necessary – their ambitions to move forward.

Everyone should have access to equal opportunities but, for equitable reasons, some colleagues need more of a helping hand. It’s about taking the time to a) understand why people behave in certain ways, b) identify why talented people aren’t putting themselves forward, and c) nurture each team member, office-based or remote, to find out “where do you want to go and how do we get you there?”.

Part policies

One of the biggest tasks is to look at making all policies and strategies more inclusive so that every single employee is treated in the same way. Hybrid is just one added dimension.

Often organisations devise and implement strategies – such as Diversity, Equality and Inclusion – where the intention is to ensure equality and include everybody but fails to consider the impact that may have on the workforce as a whole.

Incomplete strategies don’t engage fairly with all the different audiences – in-house, remote or hybrid. Write policies and people put them on the shelf. Ditch D&I policies in favour of holding honest conversations on what the culture of an organisation should be.

Doing the hard stuff

Engaging remote, deskless or, dare we say, ‘invisible’ workers has always been an issue. It’s easier to communicate with those who are digitally connected and sitting at a desk than it is with those who aren’t. For years we’ve accepted this status quo, knowing that it’s a barrier to business success, and do nothing about it. The pandemic, like any crisis, is the catalyst for the change that’s needed and has underlined that this is no longer acceptable or tenable.

There’s an interesting chapter in The Great Indoors on creating buildings for neurodiverse people where designing something for the minority will benefit the majority. We continue, as we always have, rushing to fix issues by designing the other way round. If we take time to solve the challenges in connecting with hard-to-reach audiences, then work will be a very different place.

We all know the business benefits of having an inclusive workforce. So, if you want to make a difference but don’t know where to start or your leaders aren’t paying attention and you need them to get involved, here’s a summary of our top tips:

  • Be intentional. If you want a productive, safe and inclusive culture in your organisation, then you will make creating it a priority.

  • Bring the conversation to the fore. Raise it as an issue. Make the effort to bring people together, especially the remote, as there’s always a way to have everyone in the room.

  • Think in terms of links to business outcomes and use the language of the SMT. Position yourself so you can influence and persuade.

  • Scrap Diversity and Inclusion policies in favour of honest conversations about:
    • what needs to be put in place to make everybody feel like they belong;
    • what the culture should be;
    • how values align with different people in the workplace giving everyone a voice.

  • Don’t rush to fix it. Take time to do things properly, think about the impact, focus on the hard stuff and the benefits will be huge.

  • Design for the minority and the majority will benefit.

  • Help leaders cultivate a growth mindset: be uncomfortable, reflect on what you do and don’t know, invite feedback, defensiveness doesn’t help, grow from your mistakes, expect that change takes time (‘The Bridge Framework’ taken from Inclusion on Purpose by Ruchika Tulshyan on how organisations can foster diversity, equity, and inclusion: taking action to address and prevent workplace bias in race, gender and disability.)

  • We can all make a difference in what society has created. Understand the influence, control and impact we can have by stepping up and paying attention to what’s being said.

Hear our in-depth discussion and recommendations in full, tune in to Hybrid working and the impact on women and underrepresented people episode 2 from season 5 of our award-winning podcast.

Discover how we can help your organisation and leadership teamwork through these or any other challenging changes, drop us a line here

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