Tradition and ‘industry ecosystems’ could encourage more men back to the workplaces than women.
Workplaces will likely never look the same again. As HRM has previously reported, the ‘blended’ or ‘hybrid’ workforce is probably here to stay, so leaders need to be prepared to oversee employees in both the physical and remote workplace.
While that’s a skill in its own right, experts like professor Marian Baird AO of the University of Sydney say managers need to be equally prepared for who returns to the physical workplace versus who chooses to continue working from home.
Data suggests there’s a gender divide over preferences for remote work. A Deloitte survey of 2000 Australians noted half of the female respondents said they found working from home easier, while only a third of male respondents felt the same. Women were also more likely to report they had a better work/life balance thanks to remote work.
In a separate report, the Melbourne Institute twice asked respondents if they would like to continue working from home after the pandemic – once in September and again in November. In September, more men preferred remote work (73 per cent of men to 67 per cent of women), but by November support for remote work fell by 5 per cent among men and grew by nearly 20 per cent among women (64 per cent of men and 84 per cent of women).
“If we see, in the post COVID workplace, that more men return than women, we could [potentially] get a return of those really strong gender divisions in career ladders,” says Baird.
“If there isn’t a conscious effort to include those [often female] remote workers into decision making and the allocation of work and training, then we could see that women lose opportunity and progress in the workplace. I think that is a real danger.”
Marion Baird AO will be speaking at AHRI’s virtual International Women’s Day event on 9 March. See the full line up of speakers – including #MeToo leader Gretchen Carlson – and get your tickets at the IWD website.
Breaking down the boys’ club
Employers need to keep an eye out when their workforce begins to look homogeneous because it can have harmful effects on the organisation.
Research has consistently shown that diverse workplaces thrive. Companies with a diverse workforce are 35 per cent more likely to have higher financial returns compared to the industry median. And teams with above-average diversity produce more innovative ideas.
People in diverse teams are forced to think more creatively. If a colleague in your team has a different cultural background to you, they’re going to bring an entirely different perspective to your projects. For example, if you ask for their feedback on an important pitch to an international stakeholder, they’re likely to offer suggestions you hadn’t even considered.
“We know from research that was conducted last year during COVID, and is coming through early this year, that older men are the ones most likely to want to return to their workplaces,” she says.
So why are more older men keen to get back into the physical workspace? Baird suggests it could be that they’re more used to the technology in the workplace or it could just be a sense of comfort in the familiar that drives them back.
When workplaces become homogeneous, like a boys club Baird says there is a potential to reinforce out-dated traditions or problematic industry trends.
“It’s not just the policies of the particular company that you’re employed in, there’s also what we call an ‘industry ecosystem’. So within that whole industry, there’s a buildup of norms and behaviours that then circulate between the companies that lead to behaviours that are very hard to break,” says Baird.
Bad behaviour in industry ecosystems is probably best exemplified by the financial sector prior to the banking royal commission. Numerous financial institutions and their employees had partaken in dubious and sometimes illegal practices that went unnoticed for years. These industry-wide problems left thousands of Australians in financial ruin and led the entire industry to re-assess the cultures that allowed for such behaviour.
What can help to break through industry ecosystems is an external force. This force could be a royal commission or a world wide pandemic that completely upends how we work. However, organisations need to jump on these moments to create lasting change.
Keep talking and keep listening
“One of the interesting things that happened in some large organisations in Australia, is that the senior management started to talk to each other a lot more during COVID. I think organisations should continue that,” says Baird.
Baird believes continued communication among senior leaders will help management stay across and problematic trends that might be creeping back into the organisation, such as the cultivation of a ‘boys’ club’.
“It doesn’t have to be an hour-long meeting. Maybe it’s 10 minutes or half an hour,” she says.
“But get together, at the beginning of the week, and ask ‘What’s going on? How can we continue to foster the changes we like and correct the ones we don’t?”
This is an area where HR professionals could utilise their new-found influence. When HR’s opinion is valued, they can make sure gender and other diversity issues are being considered during decision-making processes. Even asking questions as simple as ‘does our flexible work policy affect men and women differently?’ can get decision makers thinking differently.
“HR needs to speak for those people who don’t usually have their voice heard. [They need to] make sure certain practices, and the people implementing them, are cognisant of the differential impacts on gender,” says Baird.
Equally important is listening to employees through pulse surveys and other feedback avenues. Baird says pulse surveys should always ask for intersectional data, such as gender and age, so workplaces can gather a granular view of any workplace issues.
Some employees may feel uneasy about sharing that information. Employees might fear the information could be used to identify certain respondents, so such questions should be optional.
Baird also reminds employers to look beyond the gender binary and leave space for respondents to write in their gender, instead of asking ‘male or female’.
It always helps if HR is upfront about why they are collecting certain data and how it will be used.
The strongest way to prove the necessity of these questions is to act on the data you collect. For example, if you notice younger employees are struggling with a new process then perhaps you need to reconsider how the training for the process is delivered to that group. When employees see you’re actively listening then they might feel comfortable next time to opt-in to those more personal questions.
To prevent workplaces becoming a ‘boys club’, Baird says managers need to make sure they’re not forgetting remote workers.
“There should definitely be an ‘all in or none at all’ attitude to meetings. So if half the attendees are in the office, but the other half are at home, then everyone should jump online for the meeting,” says Baird.
This mentality also extends to decision-making. Rather than looking around the room when assigning roles, make sure to consider everyone.
“Sometimes this can be tricky because some decisions have to be made quickly and you tend to go to the people who are in sight. But it’s really critical managers provide an environment where everyone feels they’re treated equally,” says Baird
“Sometimes it will make management harder, because you need to spend more time getting information out or contacting people, but in the long run, you have fewer problems and a more equal workplace.”