As we adjust to living with the pandemic, we are no longer experimenting with whether hybrid working is a viable option, but rather how we can make it a suitable working option for all. Hybrid working is no longer a matter of ‘will it work’, but rather ‘how can we make it work better’. This means that workplace culture needs to be earnestly reconsidered so that hybrid working does not become a one-size-fits-all solution. Women are one of the many demographics whose experiences and pain points should be re-understood in the hybrid context so that they too can have an equity of experience in this new normal.
Flexibility: A double-edged sword
Research by the Future Forum indicates that knowledge workers are desiring and receiving greater levels of flexibility which is concurrent with what has been observed in Australia. When looking at flexibility and gender, women (52%) are more likely to prefer to work at least mostly remotely than men (46%). Whilst this flexibility has led to greater workplace satisfaction, it is also inadvertently at odds with the work from office frequencies of executives. 71% of executives currently work from the office three or more days a week, compared to just 63% of non-executives.
Thus, the falling presence of women in the office has resulted in a heightened concern for the emergence of gender-skewed proximity bias; the accelerated advancement of those who work from the office over those who work remotely. This issue will be compounded by existing gender inequities, such as the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of leadership.
Dr. Jill Armstrong of Cambridge University’s Murray Edwards College has uncovered that informal networks are less effective for the professional development of women than men. Men are often sponsored, meaning they have an advocate that actively helps them obtain development opportunities. Sponsorship can lead to a 30% increase in promotions, pay rises, and stretch assignments. Women however, tend to be mentored, meaning they have someone to give them career advice. But a mentor has no vested interest in their mentee’s career advancement. Both sponsorship and mentoring usually arise informally and are therefore susceptible to various influences. For example, sponsorships between men may stem from invitations to have a coffee, drink, or meal, however such invitations may carry unwanted connotations when directed towards women.
If unaddressed, these gendered differences in informal networks may be exacerbated in hybrid times. Less time spent in the office will result in fewer networking opportunities for women, whilst the inverse will prevail for men.
Formalise the informal, especially in hybrid times
At Veldhoen + Company, we want to create a better world of work. Everyone should be trusted and empowered to make decisions about when, where and with whom they would like to do their work so that they may be both productive and healthy. In the context of hybrid, this means that organisations must accommodate for individual decisions on when and where people would like to work whilst maintaining a shared sense of belonging. If a sizable proportion of the organisation feel that they cannot access their desired level of choice for fear of how it may impact their career, then the hybrid system is failing. With hybrid working becoming the norm, leaders should have a heightened awareness for how their personal choices will influence others.
If the current downfall of sponsorships is in its informal nature, then leaders should formalise sponsorship opportunities, as suggested by Armstrong. This will be an especially crucial leadership initiative when working in a hybrid manner. A formal sponsorship program will help minimise the effects of proximity bias and will mitigate social influences. It will also complement the changing purpose of the office, as it starts to become an increasingly valued hub for socialising with colleagues.
Ultimately, as the world of work learns how to create truly successful hybrid working strategies, care must be taken to ensure all employees feel supported. As women choose to work remotely more often, hybrid leadership practices, such as considering the effects of their personal choices and implementing formal sponsorship programs, will need to be evaluated to ensure equity of experience in the workplace.