Women and hybrid working – how to create an equal playing field

One of the biggest legacies of the coronavirus pandemic is likely to be a permanent change to our working habits. For most office workers, the past eighteen months have seen usual routines upended, with dining room tables, sofas, and sheds becoming new offices, creating a totally different work-life balance. The pandemic has altered how we view the function of the office, and has demonstrated to many organisations that excellent work can be achieved, and productivity heightened, even in jobs that no one imagined could be done virtually.

It is tempting to think that these hybrid working options are a big equaliser for women. Not only do they remove any stigma of working from home, but they also make it easier for parents to maintain full-time jobs alongside caring responsibilities. This is particularly applicable to women, as research continues to show that they shoulder the lion’s share of childcare commitments. However, it’s important to note that the hybrid working model that most businesses are now pursuing presents its own set of challenges to women’s career progression.

Before we all wade deeper into the concept of hybrid working, employers should take a step back and consider whether it really does deliver an equitable outcome for women. If not, consider how can we ensure that the “new normal” is an improved place for women in the workforce.

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Conquering biases for better hybrid working

Although hybrid working has many benefits, some women will find it challenging to return to the office as a result of caring responsibilities, which are said to have increased over the lockdowns.

In a recent conversation I had with Professor Emma Parry from the Cranfield School of Management, she highlighted one of biggest issues hybrid working can create: unconscious presenteeism. Much academic research supports the uncomfortable fact that we look more favourably on those we see more often or give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity. In the workplace, this proximity bias has often been found to translate to unconscious presenteeism. The employees who are more visible in the workplace – often those who are physically there – are usually in a more favourable position when it comes to career progression. Conversely, less visible employees, including remote workers, are typically more likely to be overlooked for new opportunities and omitted from the ad-hoc, informal decision-making discussions that tend take place at short notice in the office. With women more likely to work from home than men, this is a particularly worrying phenomenon and one that businesses must work hard to address

Key to overcoming unconscious presenteeism is building awareness of cognitive bias, whilst also deploying a comprehensive set of training and inclusive management techniques. For example, leaders should ensure they are connecting with everyone in their team weekly and reflecting at the end of the week on who have spoken with in recent days. In hybrid meetings, leaders can also ask those who are joining remotely to contribute first and those in the office to use the same meeting interface as those joining remotely. We need to find ways to make hybrid working work for everyone and that means embracing new technologies and empowering managers to be able to do so.

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Attracting and retaining talent

Hybrid working also opens up a business’ potential talent pool, far beyond traditional geographic boundaries. Many organisations have already seen this have a huge impact as a key driver of ‘the great resignation’. Competition for talent has never been so fierce. Now really is the time for companies to review and revise their hiring practices to ensure they are not unintentionally excluding applicants. Even the language used in job adverts can make a big impact. At Akamai, we found that by reviewing the wording of our job descriptions, we greatly increased the diversity of candidates applying for these roles.

Another point to consider is the diversity of the recruitment. As well as including obviously diverse characteristics like gender, age, ethnicity, and socio-economic backgrounds, it can be useful to consider different personality types and hidden disabilities too. Not only will this highlight the true diversity of the organisation, but also encourages greater diversity of perspective in the hiring decision.

Partnering with community groups, to attract diverse talent and target specific audiences, is also worth considering. Working with these partners can help yield strong candidates and enable your organisation to become more diverse.

At the same time, I encourage business leaders to look at their long-term strategies. One I have found successful is investment in young women’s STEM initiatives. This is particularly important as women still account for less than 15% of employees in STEM-related roles in the UK. In empowering and encouraging women to recognise that STEM is a place for them too, we are taking a big step towards increasing diversity of thought and therefore achieving better outcomes. That’s why I encouraged the Akamai Foundation to bring the first Girls Who Code summer camp to the UK this year and to provide grants to organisations like Stemettes. By investing in these initiatives, we can inspire, educate, and equip young women for futures in technology-related fields.

It goes without saying that companies succeed when they are built with the right people and reflect the society they operate in. Working to overcome proximity bias, and striving to attract and retain diverse talent, are just some of the ways organisations can try to create a post-pandemic workplace that is a fairer and more level playing field for women and other under-represented groups. At the same time, we will be fostering more productive, engaged, and loyal workforces.

Written by Natalie Billingham, vice-president, sales and managing director of EMEA at Akamai

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