Though it’s unclear what the full ramifications of COVID-19 will be on societies and economies globally, there is one thing that’s certain: the future of work is going to look very different. As the pandemic forced offices around the world to close and employees learned to adjust to working from home and all the complications that come with it, many organisations have shifted their work from home and remote work policies.
Already, three clear scenarios have emerged for workplace policies globally. And while many organisations are shifting to a flexible environment, with options to work both in the office or remotely, others are taking a more hard-line approach, requiring employees to return to the office full time or, are closing down offices altogether in favour of a fully remote staff.
But will it be possible for these new models of working to treat all employees equitably?
Palladium’s Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Rosanna Duncan notes that all three scenarios have potential ramifications on the recruitment of talent, the progression of employees, and the retention of staff. “Before COVID-19, the line around flexible working and working from home was often discretionary and the notion that people must work from home will have D&I implications on those who, for a variety of reasons, can’t work from home, and vice versa.”
Duncan adds that there are several factors at play and those companies that draw a line in the sand, either for mandatory return to work or mandatory work from home, risk alienating not only potential recruits but their current employees. “Organisations must do equity impact assessments before putting policies like these into place,” she notes.
“Leaders must ask themselves if there is potential for the policy to have a negative impact on particular groups and consult with their people on how to mitigate those impacts.”
Flexibility VS Inclusivity
For Duncan, the pandemic has only solidified the need for flexibility. “It’s been so bizarre to not be in the same room as the leadership team since 2019,” she says. “I’m a big believer in the ability to work from home but you need to have some office interactions, and there’s an opportunity here for employers to manage people’s expectations on what working will look like moving forward.”
But first, they need to talk to their employees. She cites the example of people who for financial reasons and/or due to extended family living arrangements share their home with a number of other people. If people are sharing a room or if there’s a lot of activity in their home, will they be willing to work for an organisation that forces them to work from home full-time?
On the other hand, there will be people who fear a return to the office and will feel anxious about resuming their more traditional working patterns and rituals. Things like the daily commute, meetings with colleagues huddled in small meeting rooms, sitting shoulder to shoulder at the lunch table, and after work activities in busy venues now feel like a thing of the past. “In a time where many of us are living in a heightened state of anxiety returning to ‘normal’ when things feel anything but, will be a challenge for many employees,” Duncan notes.
There will also be those who don’t necessarily fear a return to their old patterns, but simply don’t want to repeat them. People who had to wrestle with their employers for flexibility in the past may decide that a return to the office on a permanent basis is not for them and seek employment within organisations who are closing their offices and making the shift towards 100 percent remote working.
Organisations who insist that all their people are expected to be present in the office will need to consider the ramifications of forcing people back who are not or who may never be mentally prepared to return. A less than supportive attitude to managing work related anxiety or stress is likely to result in an exodus of these people to organisations where they have made the decision to go 100 percent remote or where they are introducing more flexible options.
For those who are unable to find alternative employment (or who don’t want to) they may not be able to bring their best self to work, which will no doubt have an impact on staff morale and productivity.
The reality is, flexible working has either been something people are looking for or unbothered by, but the need for bringing a D&I perspective to the table on making policy decisions has never been clearer.
From addressing proximity bias (the incorrect belief that those who work physically closer to their team or leaders are better employees than those that work remotely), to opening lines of communication for all employees to comfortably share how policies will affect them and offering managers new training on the performance review process that doesn’t hinge on coming into the office, DEI leaders will be faced with a slew of new challenges in transitioning towards a more hybrid model of working.
“Organisations who introduce flexible hybrid working opportunities will be better placed and offer more attractive options to those who want to continue working with some of the freedoms they have realised during the pandemic,” says Duncan. Though she adds that this is likely to impact on staff retention rates, it may also result in organisations positioning themselves as an employer of choice, “Organisations offering diverse work options are likely to reap benefits in terms of attracting and hiring diverse talent.”
As concerns grow around the scales tipping towards unhealthy work-life balances, it will be critical for organisations to look towards creating a work environment that works for everyone, “There are now a lot of questions around work-life balance with a hybrid model and I envision that there will be a growing push around how organisations balance employer / employee relationships so that everyone is a winner, with a fit-for-purpose working environment.”
For Duncan, the winners in the competition for talent will be the organisations that take a flexible or hybrid approach and most importantly listen to their people in considering the positives and negatives around the decisions they’re making and policies they’re implementing, “We’re moving into an exciting period where now more than ever, employers have to listen to their employees and vice versa.”
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