The anticipated benefits of hybrid workplaces are still at the stage of initiating and retaining women at the junior and mid-career levels
“I had to take a break when I had my baby”… “When I had to relocate with my spouse”… “When my personal situation required a job that involved less travel”… I have lost count of how many candidates especially women have shared these examples which impacted their careers. It’s no surprise that for a country that has the highest percentage of women STEM graduates in the world (40%) as reported by United Nations, the gap of women in these jobs (only 14%) is glaring. Women drop off mid-career due to personal responsibilities as in most households they are still not seen as the bread-sharer.
While the pandemic brought along one of the most miserable years in human history, it also marked the silver lining in the cloud with the acceptance of a hybrid workplace. Staunch organization cultures that resisted work from home for long caved in overnight and had to give way to innovative and creative mix of physical workspaces and advanced digital mediums. For a section of the workforce, this was the much-awaited opportunity. The future of work which is a combination of remote, flexible, and fixed working addresses several challenges that impact gender diversity.
Quite a few women candidates give up on the opportunity just by looking at the job description. Studies show that women tend to apply for roles only where they meet 100% requirements vs men who would apply even at a 60% match. Conditions like location constraints, long working hours in the workplace, work timings, extensive travel requirements are often deterrents for the women from applying. Flexible working options would reduce these conditions.
Roles that required continuous connectivity which was not possible on home networks or due to the timings of these jobs not being accepted at home often reduced the women talent pool. With infrastructure significantly having improved and workplaces taking initiatives to support remote working, these challenges have been significantly overcome.
“Options for both men and women to share responsibilities by working remotely or move closer to their extended family support systems would reduce the incidents of women dropping off mid-career to take care of children, ageing parents, tending to a sick family member, relocate with the spouse, etc.”
However, while hybrid workplaces open opportunities for greater gender diversity, they require a significant shift in mindset and skill-building at employee, manager, and organization levels beginning with the understanding that everyone is not on the same footing.
To start with, every home does not have a conducive workspace. Shared spaces, lack of ergonomic furniture or high internet bandwidth, having too many interjections, noise, etc make it difficult for remote employees to be as productive as in office. Before deciding to work remotely or flexibly one needs to ascertain that they have a conducive workspace at home. Organizations can extend support with policies like WFH Funds, Internet charge reimbursement, choice of equipment and accessories etc but not recreate employees’ homes.
Being remote also leads to a sense of isolation with lack of relationships and connections that provide support in the workplace. One would need to build stronger relationship skills and self-initiative to reach out, and gainaccess to resources and visibility. Building credibility in a complex and dynamic environment with low visibility requires quick thinking, adaptability, and flexibility
It will also take significant effort on part of managers and organizations to help employees navigate the shift toward hybrid workplaces. For instance, with a virtual first mindset meetings and sessions should be conducted as if everyone was working remotely with everyone showing up as a separate individual on-screen vs joining in a conference room with side conversations making remote employees feel cut off. This would significantly need to be monitored for unconscious bias if the remote employees are mostly women.
Managers must recognize the challenges faced by remote employees with respect to access to information, resources, as well as connection and visibility. New hire integration plans will need to be designed keeping in view these imbalances. Performance reviews will need objective discussions based on output vs perceptions. It would also require open dialogue at team meetings between managers and team members to acknowledgeand discuss these dynamics and to decide how to address them collaboratively to prevent distance bias
The anticipated benefits of hybrid workplaces are still at the stage of initiating and retaining women at the junior and mid-career levels. For the future of work to enhance gender equity across levels, other deeper issues that need to be watched out for are potential segmentation of employees into tiers based on access in the organization and the deeply embedded social norms that place more domestic responsibilities on women and might create more burden on women as they advance their careers. It’s a beginning that will need conscious, consistent, continuous effort from multiple quarters.