How can we make flexible work policies more inclusive?

2020 has seen the rise of flexible work policies, but what can be done to make them more inclusive in the future?

Flexible work policies – and the organisations that implement them – have long been seen as de facto inclusive. However, employers must stay aware of the diversity and inclusion dangers.

By offering flexibility in working, employers support those who struggle to always be in the office and level the playing field for these employees. However, the coronavirus pandemic has shown that this may not be quite so simple, as hundreds of thousands of employees have confronted the strains and stresses of working from home.

Following the initial rush to adapt to the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting patchwork response to flexible working, employers now face the challenge of creating long-term, flexible working policies. To ensure that these policies are inclusive, businesses need to consider gender inequality and mental health and focus on performance, not presence.

Gender inclusivity

For most organisations, flexible working entails home working which usually manifests as employees being given the option between working in the office or at home for some or all workdays. This model is set to be especially popular as the UK looks to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, and businesses begin to return to the office slowly.

Providing this choice may seem like an attractive strategy but be aware that employees may not be making as free a decision as it seems – especially when it comes to gender. The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that, while progress has been made, there are still massive disparities between the burden of unpaid domestic labour and childcare on men and women.

Widespread working from home has afforded this issue greater visibility. Still, there is little evidence of a long-term shift in attitudes, meaning that female employees may feel greater pressure to continue working at home to facilitate their additional unpaid workload. Male colleagues who face fewer barriers will gain greater influence in decision-making and higher chances of promotion, simply through being there in person. So, poorly planned flexible work policies could greatly exacerbate gender inequality in the workplace.

Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution to this issue – but an individualised, personalised approach can help. Understand the reasons people are opting for or against working flexibly and use this to build better policies. Also, adopt a ‘performance, not presence’ mentality, by focusing on the work employees deliver, rather than the hours they are visible for. Create meaningful opportunities to integrate virtual participation with work being done in the office.

Ethnic inclusivity

Research from the Woolf Institute has suggested that working from home could lead to greater prejudice, as individuals are no longer physically interacting with ethnically diverse colleagues in the workplace.

Much like with gender inequality – the steps taken towards racial equality in recent years could quickly be reversed. Presence in the office clearly plays a role here, but businesses must be cautious not to succumb to tokenism or will risk sacrificing performance for presence.

Rather than increasing pressure for ethnic minorities to come into the office, create opportunities to stay connected virtually through team or company-wide video calls to maintain the community that would be fostered in the office. Invite external speakers to encourage diversity of thought, signpost holidays and significant dates for multiple cultures and religions, and reassess wider policies that may negatively impact community relations.

Mental health

Homeworking eliminates the distance between home and work – both physically and mentally. Undeniably, this provides benefits for some groups, but can also place a huge strain on mental health.

With separate work and home lives, employees can take a break from home stresses at work, and a break from work stresses at home. When the two are combined, stress becomes constant and can very quickly seem overwhelming.

One approach will work for every employee, and employers must talk to individuals to directly determine their needs. Just because employees have proved that they can work from home in the short term, doesn’t mean that it will work as a blanket policy moving forwards. Support your workforce with the ability to work away from home, with specific mental health resources, and with initiatives to keep team members connected and restore work/life balance.

To deliver on all of these fronts – which is undeniably a difficult task – the importance of talking to your employees is hard to underestimate. It sounds simple, but this is where many leaders fail.

Instead, starting conversations with individuals or small groups helps inform employers about their workforce’s real experiences and their perspective on flexible working. Simply picking up the phone can work wonders. This communication should go both ways, with managers being as transparent as possible about company updates and goals.

Not only will clear dialogue enable leaders to develop appropriate inclusive policies, but it will also help everyone feel like they are part of the same team.

By Jeff Phipps, UK Managing Director of ADP, the global HR and payroll company.
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