More than a year into the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to disrupt the workplace. Amid the ever-shifting landscape of policies and protocols, two trends stand out: the rise of remote working and the falling participation of women in the workforce. Since March 2020, nearly 1.8 million women have dropped out of the labor force, yet companies are scrambling for talent—creating new emphasis on the meaning of Women’s Equality Day, celebrated Aug. 26.
Ultimately, employers must listen to the female workforce’s demand for flexible work arrangements if they hope to recruit and retain talent in today’s competitive hiring market.
Certainly, remote and hybrid options hold promise for women while the world grapples with the next year or more of recovery. The ability to manage their own time, the logic goes, will make it easier for female employees to handle household tasks that still mostly fall on their plate. These measures are already popular and increasingly viewed as non-negotiable by female workers. But working from home can have downsides that impede efforts to build more inclusive workplaces with equal growth opportunities.
Given that professional women already struggle to be heard, will their chances for promotion shrink further in a world dominated by virtual meetings? And then there are the impromptu brainstorms and teaching moments at the water cooler—will these opportunities flow to those (men) commuting in-person while staff working from home are isolated and passed over?
Here’s how employers, led by HR, can leverage the advantages of workplace flexibility without ingraining disparities and set up frameworks to address what was normal, what is the new normal and what may be the future:
Separating need from nice-to-have
The surveys are clear: Women want more flexibility. But working from home is not necessarily a silver-bullet solution. Some industries or cultures are simply not compatible with fully dispersed setups. Employers need to consider the full range of options to accommodate those with caregiving and other obligations. This includes permitting employees to work hours aligned with the school day or to hold certain meetings via teleconference.
The best course of action will vary according to needs, but it shouldn’t be based on management hunches or boilerplate “best practices.” Like in nearly every other area, the top companies are those making data-driven HR decisions. There are many ways to source data on employee perspectives, from holding town hall meetings to installing suggestion boxes, but as part of the workforce goes remote, these conversations should not only go digital but be anonymized as well. In anonymizing this feedback, all employees’ insights carry the same weight, regardless of where they work.
Thinking beyond 9 to 5
Workplace flexibility is now a competitive differentiator in hiring, especially for women. From the earliest stages in the recruitment process, companies should directly address their stance on remote work and related issues, like location-adjusted pay or backup childcare coverage. This takes the guesswork out of job hunting for women who are managing multiple priorities and makes a strong cultural fit more likely.
Of course, companies shouldn’t make claims they can’t back up with existing practices. HR should institute clear frameworks around certain privileges, such as observing alternate hours, with few exceptions. Even if certain policies are subject to reasonable change, companies can still provide guidelines for how, when and why they may be altered. At a minimum, senior management should communicate target dates for returning to the office with plenty of lead time.
Migrating office banter online
With surveys showing most CEOs expect hybrid workplaces to become the norm, HR leaders must act today. That means creating structures that help employees collaborate effectively across any distance, schedule or channel. Digital tools will play a role, but companies should also find new forums for feedback and relationship building. These could include regularly scheduled ideation sessions, remote mentoring programs or even simple gestures like dedicating a portion of team meetings to small talk. In short, remote staff shouldn’t feel like they exist only as an email address.
For their part, newly minted remote workers should expect to be evaluated on how well they bridge the distance. HR teams should adjust performance reviews to include “soft” criteria, such as integrating with teams and proactively engaging co-workers. They can use technology to track these indicators over time and create spaces for seamless collaboration and off-the-cuff feedback. Insights made available by these tools will ensure remote workers receive recognition for contributions that may otherwise go unnoticed, taking a bite out of on-site favoritism.
The future (of work) is female
Millions of women are currently standing on the sidelines and looking for a way back into the office, even as millions more struggle to balance competing demands. It is impossible to know what the distant future of work looks like, but in the short-term, the organizations that succeed will be the ones that win out in recruiting and prioritize creating an even playing field for all their employees.
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