Hybrid and WFH options are bringing more women back into the workforce – then penalising them when they get there

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As we emerge from the pandemic Hybrid/Work From Home (WFH) models are becoming the norm. Most organisations have left room for individual flexibility and decision making regarding when and where they work.

For women, especially those with childcare or elderly caregiver responsibilities, Hybrid or WFH options have been welcomed as a blessing. Commuting time is regained and there is the opportunity to be more flexible in juggling work and family demands. Early evidence suggests that this will allow more women to re-enter the workplace. Another advantage is that there is more opportunity to apply for well paid, more complex and rewarding jobs which were previously only available on a full time, in office, basis.

But, what are the longer term consequences? We still have the societal norm of women being responsible for most caregiving and tasks needed to run a home. The juggling, multi-tasking act is already onerous, but will it now turn into a frenzied and exhausting tangle, which has no boundaries and never stops, with consequences for both mental and physical health? We have gained control over where we work but lost control over when. Multi-tasking now stretches over every waking hour for many women.

There is another problem too. It is more advantageous to be in the office. It allows you to be there for crucial conversations, to be more visible, to build key relationships, to be connected and to network. We easily hand the key assignments and important projects, which are key career defining steppingstones, to those who we see and those who are in the right place at the right time. Those at home are out of sight and often out of mind. The informal conversations, the feedback after an important meeting, the chat about a key client are vital sources of both information and coaching. Those who work from home are likely to be included only in the formal, official channels of communication and left out of the myriad conversations that shape decisions.  There is a risk that offices will become male environments with a few token women around while the rest work from home.

This has serious consequences. We already have the problem of women becoming ‘stuck’ at middle management1 and never breaking through to senior roles. Those in the office, more likely to be men, are at an advantage. In addition, there will be fewer visible female role models to inspire, coach and advocate for other women.

A potential solution would be to mandate the number of core hours to be spent in the office or at client sites each week. Awareness of the disadvantages of the Hybrid and WFH options would help too. Leaders need to be conscious of how they communicate, make extra effort to keep informal remote channels open or even ‘formalise’ them and ensure they are fair and thoughtful about the allocation of projects and high-profile assignments.

HBR suggests 6 guidelines2:

1. Instead of making assumptions, collect and analyse data

2. Change with, rather than against your culture

3. Understand that remote working does not occur in a vacuum

4. Avoid the development of two tiers of employees

5. Educate managers about the new rules

6. Focus on output

Tracking, monitoring and advocating for the progression of women remains essential. We need to actively ensure that out of sight is not out of mind.

About the author

Debbie Dudley is a Director of the Openside Group. She is a former Big 4 partner who now combines family life with an international career in learning and development for professional services. Debbie is a keen advocate for women and those from disadvantaged groups helping them to achieve career success through coaching, mentoring and training.

1 COVID-19’s impact on women’s employment | McKinsey

2 Why WFH Isn’t Necessarily Good for Women (hbr.org)