The Unpredictable Impact of Greater Flexible Working on Gender Balance in Leadership Pipelines

Woman engaged in flexible working from home while a child looks on.


Anybody that has been working from home can tell you about the benefits and challenges they have faced in the last few months. Not all the challenges they have encountered can be neatly resolved through a Flexible Working Policy document found on the intranet. Nor can they be easily fixed by installing a better collaboration IT tool on the laptop we use while sitting in our dining room. According to a recent survey discussed in Forbes, the majority of surveyed employees do not like working from home all the time. Consequently, job satisfaction has fallen from 57% to 32%, while job motivation has dropped from 56% to 36%. Although 38% of survey participants reported an improved work-life balance, this did not result in reduced stress levels. In fact, 42% of respondents reported an increase in stress levels.

Perceptions of Flexible Working Arrangements

A recent Australian study by the Boston Consulting Group found that as a result of the COVID-19-related work from home arrangements, more employees, especially those older than 60, want to increase the time they work remotely in the future. Employees would ideally like a hybrid model where they can work remotely 2-3 days a week. Of the benefits of working from the office that employees missed, the top 3 revolved around interacting with colleagues, which highlights some limitations of digitally replicating communications. Interestingly, men reported missing these social interactions more than women and are looking forward to going back to the office more than women.

Will COVID-19 Driven Flexibility Patterns impact Opportunities and Promotions for Women?

Elsewhere, studies show that the pressures and challenges of working from home during the pandemic, particularly relating to childcare, impact women to a much higher degree than it does men. A study cited in the Harvard Business Review found that professional men with and without children, and professional women without children increase their unpaid overtime hours when they have greater control of their work hours. But, professional women with children do not. Another study found that more flexible work arrangements enable better retention of women in lower management levels. But, it does not lead to increased promotions of women to senior roles.

Optimising Flexible Working Arrangements

With post-COVID-19 work flexibility policies being reviewed across many organisations, the implementation of these policies must harness the benefits of flexible working for all team members. It needs to motivate top performers, allow for good and fair business decision-making, and actively manage the gender balance between office and remote working. Simply updating an organisation’s flexible working policy without thinking strategically about how these policies can best motivate and optimise employees’ productivity leaves too much value on the table. There should be an evaluation of the processes and systems that support flexible work to determine how these objective systems and processes may create unequal outcomes.

Managers should seek to develop their skills in negotiating flexible working norms with a largely remote team, beyond simply implementing a formal flexible working policy.  A lack of adaptability may hamper organisational efforts to build an agile, diverse, and inclusive employee base willing to go the extra step in delivering value to clients and contributing to organisational growth and success throughout and beyond COVID-19. Organisations do not yet fully understand how a higher uptake of flexible work will play out in terms of organisational goals and gender participation in opportunities and promotions. Still, they should be mindful of how seemingly equal processes and systems could produce unintended outcomes.

Contact us to discuss:

  • Adapting your flexibility policies to best practice and mitigating risks to your Gender Leadership Pipeline from remote working patterns established during COVID-19;
  • Designing your feedback tools or engagement survey to gather data on how flexibility arrangements may impact diversity and other outcomes in your organisation;
  • Virtual team sessions to plan flexibility arrangements collectively against an equity and performance-based framework;
  • Equipping your managers and teams with the knowledge to mitigate unconscious biases faced by flexible workers.

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