Is flexible working the great equaliser, asks Alex Fleming? There is a danger for people who choose to work from home when the office is open, to miss out on social capital, when compared to their in-office counterparts – but it shouldn’t be this way.
When remote working erupted onto the scene last year, it certainly seemed so. New ways of working promised to democratise access to the workplace and create opportunities for greater inclusivity.
Indeed, flexibility does offer these benefits. Even the UK Government recognises this: that’s why in September, it launched a consultation on giving all employees the right to request flexible working when they start new jobs.
As much as it fosters inclusivity, flexibility can also create inequity among employees. Businesses that do not take heed of this run the risk of creating a workplace that rewards office and hybrid workers differently.
What should leaders be aware of?
Flexibility stigma: the side effect of hybrid working
Recent research from the Adecco Group reveals that globally, employees believe flexible working is beneficial for those with disabilities (75%), working parents (73%) and people from diverse backgrounds (69%), but flexible working models don’t automatically ensure those with different office work preferences and needs are recognised equally.
There is a danger that those who spend more time working away from the office lose social and career capital, compared to those who show their faces in the workplace. This is because employers often, subconsciously, value physical presence when it comes to pay rises and promotions. A recent survey from the Trades Union Congress revealed that 86 percent of women working flexibly have faced discrimination and disadvantage at work.
It’s the responsibility of employers to be aware of this and it’s most definitely in their interest to take this seriously and proactively address the problem. After all, it benefits everyone. From my experience at Adecco, I see three ways for companies to do this.
Adopt the mindset of mass customization
Hybrid working is exactly as it sounds: a combination of office and remote working, but there’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to the right balance of both. A hybrid working model that works for everyone is one that serves each employee’s individual needs.
Listening to employees is key to identifying which elements of flexible working have worked well and where there remains room for improvement. It also builds trust between employers and employees, as leaders empower their workforce to get the job done in the best way for them.
Employees are already making their expectations clear: nearly two thirds (63%) of office workers in the UK want a hybrid working model where more than half of their time spent working is remote. This sort of model, implemented correctly and managed in the right way, will bring with it a host of benefits; increased talent retention and employee job satisfaction, improved wellbeing, business agility as well as improved productivity to name just a few.
Equip managers with new skills
For all workers, managers are a cornerstone of the working experience. They hold sway over worker motivation, employee relationships, and feelings of recognition. However, not all managers are equipped to handle care and management responsibilities in the hybrid working world.
Engineering an equal, inclusive hybrid workplace means investing in core management skills amongst leaders. Communication, planning, target-setting, relationship building and team working skills are more important than ever in a flexible team. Upskilling in these areas will help managers to do their job to the best of their ability; to listen to, communicate with and help their teams succeed, wherever they are. It will also ensure all employees are equally provided with motivational development and career opportunities.
Engaging with positive positioning
Technological obstacles to flexible working have been well and truly negated, thanks to the digital acceleration of the last couple of years. The barriers that remain are largely cultural; overcoming negative attitudes to flexible working is a key part of designing an inclusive, hybrid workplace.
In any workforce, there may be some who view flexibility as a means of taking on fewer responsibilities, which can lead to a deterioration of team morale and culture. Evidence even suggests that this stigma is gendered: for instance, when mothers change to a flexible work pattern, they are more likely than men to face flexibility stigma – the perception that they are contributing less.
Leaders need to communicate openly and often with employees and teams to ensure flexible working is seen as a method to help people work according to their personal needs, not as a way of working less hard or less effectively. This comes down to employers building trust with their employees and allowing them the autonomy to get the job done in a way that suits them. Encouraging teams to focus on results, and not hours spent online, is one way of doing this, as is having a clearly communicated, written policy on hybrid working.
Engineer an inclusive hybrid workplace
If businesses want to reap the benefits of an open and supportive workplace, with high productivity and motivation levels, they need to ensure their hybrid working model is an equal one. This means specifically engineering the workplace to mitigate flexibility stigma and promote equal access to opportunities. Only by doing this will businesses prevent the development of a two-tier system that rewards those who show up to the office – and penalises those who don’t or choose not to.
Alex Fleming is the Regional President of Northern Europe at Adecco