The emergence of COVID-19 has given us a whole new perspective on flexibility; it has gone from being treated as a unique accommodation to being a core design feature of most workplaces. Considered by many as a key step towards equalizing career opportunities for women, greater flexibility also offers both women and men options to craft a life that does not center around work at the expense of other priorities. Although organizations have been making slow, incremental advancements towards workplace gender equality for decades now, the widespread adoption of flexibility creates more of the conditions needed to make significant steps forward.
Employers are now embracing flexibility in both location and schedule to support their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies. Although these changes are needed, if they are not carefully designed, they can actually make current issues worse. When companies initially had to work from home, it was a sudden and unplanned decision in response to the pandemic. Companies now have an excellent opportunity to create more equitable and inclusive work environments by creating carefully designed hybrid and remote work structures.
Kearney’s study of working women at the outset of the pandemic revealed that 30 percent of women were considering a change in their current role, leaving their company, or exiting the workforce altogether as a result of the unintended consequences and challenges of making the sudden shift to remote work.
Kearney reported that women working from home found it challenging to manage their workload, had reduced access to influential leaders and career opportunities and experienced a decrease in their overall well-being and mental health at the outset of the pandemic. These barriers to women’s career advancement must be addressed through new flexible work models in the pandemic reopening to prevent the likelihood of women continuing to leave their organizations or the workforce altogether in a labor market that heavily favors employees. However, if flexible working arrangements are adequately designed, they can significantly benefit women, the broader workforce, and organizations.
According to the US Census Bureau, women aged 25 to 44 are nearly three times as likely as men to be unemployed due to childcare demands caused by the pandemic. In addition, 65 percent of women believe that the pandemic has made things worse for them. Women report more of a desire to work from home than men do. Women have more of a need to work from home than men do in general. Given the labor shortage and the struggle to retain workers the US faces right now, it would be beneficial for the job market as a whole to be more flexible.
But working from home is not always synonymous with having flexibility at work—especially for women. Companies that recognize the difference and incorporate more flexible work policies into their operations will have a competitive advantage in retaining top female talent. From trusting employees to choose their work location and hours based on their work tasks and personal priorities, to providing generous parental leave and childcare support that enables working parents to fulfill their caregiving responsibilities, and fostering a work culture that prioritizes healthy work practices and personal well-being, it remains clear that there is still a long way to go to make remote and hybrid work the true revolution that it could bring to workplace gender equality.
Preethi Prasad is a Partner at Kearney. Kim Fulton is an Employee Experience Expert&Director of Kearney’s New Era of Work platform.