Flexible working options can support women in the workplace

flexible working womenAs of May 2022, more than one hundred years after the passage of the Sex Disqualification Removal Act – legislation which opened the workplace equally to women – more than half of the UK’s female professionals are at risk of leaving their jobs. As a recent study showed, 52 percent of women in the UK say they are either considering leaving or have already left a role due to lack of flexibility. The widespread nature of this “Flexidus” is chilling. The pandemic has already set back women’s participation in the workforce back 22 years behind men. How can businesses respond with the flexible working choices that many women are seeking?

A critical first step is to reframe this issue as part and parcel of the times we live in. It’s not a women’s issue or a mum’s issue as much as it is a 21st century labour challenge. The world of work we live in is awash in uncertainty, constantly changing, and volatile as a hurricane. Individual workers need degrees of freedom to be able to honour their commitments at work and home alike – as partners, as parents, as caregivers, as fully human beings.

This need parallels the organisational need for agility driven by this same climate of change and uncertainty. Organisations, like individual employees, need to be able to quickly pivot as newcomers upend industries and global events disrupt supply chains. One flavour of organisational response to this challenge is: all hands-on deck, all the time. Organisations demand more and more hours, in more rigid ways.

But if businesses want their employees to lead in an agile manner, they need to encourage both personal and professional agility. Behavioural and cognitive agility is nurtured by the agile organisation. Giving employees more flexible working options will yield greater returns for the agility of the business.

That’s the business case for flexible working, above and beyond the desire to retain talent. So what does it look like to actually provide the flexibility women are seeking?


Going remote

Employees of all genders have benefitted from the flexibility afforded by hybrid work, with a slight edge for female employees. According to a recent survey, 61 percent of women feel freer to be themselves at work while remote whereas 51 percent of men report feeling the same. Remote work helps these employees achieve greater work-life balance in an era where the demands at home have grown.

At its best, working remote or hybrid increases, rather than diminishes, employee productivity. According to a 2019 Bloomberg study, if women were to receive more access to flexible working arrangements, in addition to child care and secondary education, they could add as much as $20 trillion to the global economy. Study after study has shown that remote workers work more and produce more.

Allowing employees to work remotely also doesn’t have to mean a complete absence of in-person time. Certain stages of innovation, for example, may benefit from in-person collaboration. Women seeking flexibility want to be able to control how much in-person time they can contribute, and when they do so, so that they can continue to meet demands outside of work. Clear expectation setting and open communication are critical for successfully navigating in-person requirements. It’s also critical to give employees as much control as possible over scheduling these sessions.


Ditch the meetings

For working mothers, every second of the day must be optimised. In a remote-first culture, one of the biggest sources of wasted time is unnecessary meetings. 56 percent of employees  say meetings are unproductive and inefficient. This same European study found that employees spend a total of 187 hours, or 23 days, a year in meeting.

Scheduled, required-attendance meetings interfere with the flexibility and control that working women are seeking. If 56 percent of that time is wasted anyway, there’s an obvious opportunity for corporations to reduce this pain point by half.

Some strategies companies already use to reduce meeting waste include sharing agendas in advance; reducing meeting attendees; and empowering employees to say no to meetings.

In addition to these best practices, we recommend that organisations proactively provide employees with guidelines on how much of their time should be spent in meetings. This number will vary by industry and by role.

With those guidelines in hand, people can work backwards to decide which meetings are highest priority to fill those hours. They can also feel confident in saying no when they consistently find themselves spending more than the recommended amount of time in meetings each day.


Offering support

Encouraging remote work and providing guide rails on meeting times will materially impact how much flexibility a woman feels she has at work. They send a message of autonomy that female employees are craving and value.

But companies often miss the opportunity to close the loop on these investments by stating what may seem obvious: that these structural changes are being made because companies want to support their employees in their need for flexibility. It costs nothing extra to explicitly communicate this; and it will gain companies additional allegiance and appreciation from their employees.

We know this from our own research. We found that when women feel supported at work they are 31 percent more committed to staying at their organisation. They also see a 17 percent boost in their wellbeing. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that women understand that policy changes are being made for their benefit. Have senior leaders at the C and VP level spell this out: “We know this is a particularly challenging time for women at work. We value our female workers immensely and these are the steps we are taking to answer the call for more flexibility.” But have these same leaders model taken advantage of these new policies by working remotely themselves, and by adhering to the meeting guidelines?

All of these changes will contribute to women feeling, first and foremost, a greater sense of control over their work lives; and, secondarily, a feeling of support from their organisations. They will help keep women engaged and committed to their roles. And they can help stem the tide of the Flexidus, so women can continue to engage in the workforce in equal numbers to men, achieving their potential in both their professional and personal lives.