Coronavirus has brought on history’s largest ever remote working experiment. At the peak of lockdown, some 20 million people were working from home in the UK (pre-COVID only about 1.7 million UK workers classed themselves as home workers). As proponents of flexible working knew would happen all along, productivity hasn’t fallen off a cliff. In many cases, bosses have found it has increased.
While working from home hasn’t been easy or enjoyable for everyone (not all of us are lucky enough to have an appropriate space to work and many have been juggling work with caring responsibilities), it appears home working is here to stay – for now at least.
The word of the month is “hybrid”. Senior HR and business leaders expect a mixture of home and office working, with collaborative teamwork taking place in ‘activity-led’ workspaces (that’s the office, as was) and deeper ‘thinking’ work taking place at home. As BP CEO Bernard Looney told The Guardian recently: “Work patterns are changing and BP will be no exception to that. We expect to move to a more hybrid work style which will be a mixture of home and office.”
There’s no doubt that the changing work patterns Looney refers to are a positive. For too long structures of work have stubbornly clung to a traditional 9-to-5, eight-hour workday that was created by American labour unions in the 1800s. As the content and delivery of work has changed hugely since then, so too should the structure. True flexible working (rather than the enforced home working we have been enduring for six long months now) can boost job satisfaction, support wellbeing and diversity and help organisations attract talent.
However, while welcoming the increased flexibility that is being injected into COVID-era work patterns, people professionals also need to be alert to the potential inclusivity risks attached to hybrid working, and avoid creating a two-tier workforce: those who are present and visible in an office and those who, by choice or necessity, stay at home.
We already know that lockdown has had more of an impact of women’s careers than men’s. A study by the IFS and the UCL Institute of Education found that mothers were more likely than fathers to spend their working hours simultaneously caring for children. Another study by campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed found 57% of employed mothers believe increased childcare responsibilities during the pandemic has already impacted their career prospects or will harm them in the future. The natural conclusion from these stats would be that women are less likely to return to the workplace, mainly due to increased likelihood of having caring responsibilities.
Other protected characteristics are also linked to how comfortable people are likely to feel returning to offices. Evidence shows that coronavirus has a disproportionate impact on people from ethnic minorities. A Public Health England report found that the highest coronavirus diagnosis rates were among black people and that people from black and Asian ethnic groups were twice as likely to die from COVID-19 compared to white people. With knowledge of those statistics, could you blame people for not being keen to rush back to the workplace?
Then there are those with disabilities or long-term health conditions that may make it impractical, undesirable or even impossible to return to a workplace with the virus still circulating and social distancing measures still in place.
The challenge for people professionals then is making sure that organisations don’t stumble into “career management by presenteeism”, as one HR director put it, where when the exec team are in for a meeting, so too is every ambitious manager able to make it in.
Visibility, exposure and networking have always been part of progression, but now it is more important than ever before to place inclusivity at the heart of career development. Of course, many of those who have taken parental leave or worked remotely or in part-time roles already know this. People teams should measure the impact of COVID-19 to date on talent management if they can. One HR director I spoke with is conducting an audit of everyone who has been and is still furloughed, to get out in front of the risk of any negative career impact on those with caring responsibilities.
Senior leaders need to set the tone. Many of the CPOs I know have been concerned about this challenge for months and have actively tried to keep senior leaders away from the office, asking them to role model that important jobs can be done remotely. One CPO even joked about putting a lock on his CEO’s office door, to prevent him sneaking back.
HR leaders are also grappling with how to run hybrid meetings effectively. Anyone who has ever dialled into a meeting remotely will know how painful it can be. If some people are in the office and some at home, how do you ensure everyone’s voice is heard equally? It could mean introducing a rule whereby if one person dials in, everyone has to dial in, exploring technology which allows for a more immersive virtual experience, or training managers to chair hybrid meetings more inclusively.
Perhaps the most critical issue is ensuring managers know how to manage by outputs rather than inputs. Everyone who has a responsibility for talent needs to understand that value comes from the quality of the work rather than the time spent in an office chair. COVID-19 has given us a window to kill off the concept of presenteeism. It would be an enormous missed opportunity if we were to let that backfire thanks to immature management.
Katie Jacobs is senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD and a business journalist. The CIPD is holding a webinar on how to facilitate inclusive hybrid working cultures on 24 September. Sign up here.