The Divide on Workplace Flexibility as Offices Reopen

| July 28, 2020 | 3 min read
A return to the office risks that the flexibility in the workplace embraced during COVID-19 will erode — and with it, a loss of progress.

A friend of mine used to work in investment banking. He told stories of an aggressive face time culture, where sitting at a desk until the wee hours earned points with the boss and proved dedication to colleagues. He recounted a common trick of leaving a sport coat on the back of your chair if you had to leave before 10 p.m., so it would appear you just popped out for take-out. Bonus points for happy hours with the team, quick responses to emails at any hour, and Saturday mornings in the office.

It’s no surprise the world of investment banking has favored white men for so long. An always-on culture does not lend itself to success for the mother who needs to pick her kids up from daycare, to the person who cares for an elderly relative, or to the person who has to commute two hours each way.

COVID-19 has ushered in a new era of flexibility in the workplace in every industry where feasible. That’s a positive step and a silver lining. Studies have consistently shown that workplace flexibility can keep more women and minorities in the workforce. We also know that more diversity in the executive suite correlates with greater revenue. Bottom line: if your company can offer a flexible work environment, it should. Many companies in Seattle are doing just that, from Amazon to Zillow.

As offices begin to reopen, there is enormous risk that the flexibility in the workplace embraced as a necessity during COVID will erode — and with it we lose the strides made toward greater equity.


Who is most impacted by return to work policies?

Let’s look at who will come back to the office. We know women have taken on a bigger workload at home during COVID — especially when it comes to homeschooling kids. As we see rising cases of the virus, there is uncertainty about when and how we return to school.

Socioeconomic factors will come into play, too. In larger urban centers, not everyone can afford to drive to work and park — many need to take public transportation, exposing them even more to the virus. Indeed, our recent survey showed that people remain very concerned about exposure to Covid in the office. It was the top reason why many people don’t want to return full-time.

It’s too early to say with confidence, but there is a strong likelihood that women and people who can’t afford to take social distancing precautions, like avoiding public transit, will continue to work from home.


How flexibility in the workplace impacts career advancement

When coming to the office is optional, what happens to the careers of those who opt to continue to work from home? Our survey showed that nearly half of respondents believe that this would have a negative impact on future career advancement due to lack of face time with management and missing out on the informal proximity and relationship building benefits that come along with it.

What is the consequence for corporate America if women and minorities are more likely to opt for remote work? If career advancement favors those with a presence at the office, are we setting ourselves back another 50 years in the fight for equal pay? What happens to women’s career trajectories? Or what about minorities, where one study has found the Black-white pay divide is the same as it was in 1950?

Leaders: you must take this into consideration as you craft a return-to-work strategy. Focused energy must be put behind maintaining equity during this time with careful consideration for flexibility in the workplace, even as circumstances vary by organization and industry.

  • Set up processes and clearly articulated protocols that ensure proper virtual meeting etiquette. Stay hyper focused on managing informal conversations with as many members of remote teams as possible.
  • Institutionalize and implement ways for people to be evaluated on their work and not on other factors like networking and proximity.
  • Ensure every job has clear objectives and outcomes. Does everyone in the company understand what makes someone successful in a role? Are there clear definitions of success?

Those intent on a ‘back to normal’/pre-Covid environment must understand the consequence on workplace diversity.  The global experiment in work from home has highlighted the huge divide in caregiving responsibilities, and if the surveys are accurate, employers who return to a “butt in the seat” culture may see either greater attrition among women and minorities, or more challenges hiring and retaining top talent.

We are already seeing examples of leaders making unwise choices trying to open as usual, with Florida State University declaring remote workers may not care for their children. It was a boneheaded policy decision that has the potential to set back the careers of women on their campus. I fear we will encounter many more such examples of (mostly) unintentional attacks on equity. That’s why leadership has to step up and pay attention at this critical time.


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