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Why going backwards on flexible working puts D & I at risk

The unrelenting focus on getting people back into the office is taking attention away from one of flex’s major strengths. It mustn’t.

By Claire Campbell, CEO, Timewise

Is the remote vs in-office debate still the only flex topic in town? And if that’s all anyone is focusing on, what are we missing?

There’s a new story every week about companies stopping employees from working some or any of the week from home, with Loreal and O’Rourke just two very recent examples. And yes, we agree that creating opportunities for teams to come together is hugely valuable (as long as it is planned and implemented carefully, so people aren’t just commuting in to sit on Teams calls all day).

But this unrelenting focus on getting everyone in full-time holds two potential dangers for employers. At a general level, it creates a perception that remote is the only flex worth talking about, when there are other ways to provide a better work-life balance. And, more specifically, it ignores the role that flexible working can play in tackling workplace priorities such as diversity and inclusion.

How remote and flexible working support D & I

We’ve always believed that the power of flexible working to boost D & I is one of its biggest strengths, and have worked with many employers to build this into their strategies. It’s not rocket science, after all; offering a range of working patterns that take into account people’s different needs is bound to help you attract and retain different groups of people.

Numerous studies bear this out. When Zurich identified a lack of applications from women for senior roles, they launched a flexible working initiative which led to a 66% boost in applications, with one in four of the new female hires choosing to work part-time. And just this month, Wharton reported that when STEM job listings shifted to remote during the pandemic, they drew a 15% increase in female applicants, and a 33% increase in underrepresented minority applicants.

Unsurprisingly, flexible working is also important to people with additional responsibilities or needs. In a study by University of Lancaster, which focused on how remote working can support employees with a disability or long-term health condition, 70% of disabled workers said that if they were not allowed to work remotely it would negatively impact their health. ONS data has shown that, among older workers who have left the workforce since the pandemic and would consider returning, a third said that flexible working was the most important factor (higher than good pay). And a survey of mothers last year suggested that, while 98% of women want to return to work after maternity leave, only 13% think it is viable on a full-time basis.

Organisations benefit from supporting key groups

Clearly, then, the data indicates that flexible working is a good way to attract and retain a wider range of people, including women, carers and people with health issues. So there’s a strong social argument for actively using flex to help these groups enter or re-enter the workforce.

Similarly, it’s worth noting the particular role that flexible working can play in tackling the ‘S’ in ‘ESG’. We’ve written before about the risk of two-tier workforces, in which flexible working is more readily available to people in office jobs than it is to those working in frontline roles (which are frequently lower paid). As this makes it even harder for those at the lower end of the pay scale to access work that fits with their lives, it’s likely to keep people out of the workforce, and so amplify existing inequalities. Better flexible working for all can help close this gap.

It’s equally important to remember that having a more diverse workforce has been shown to make economic sense. 2017 research by McKinsey calculated that improving diversity could add £150 billion a year to the UK economy by 2025, and companies with diverse boards have been shown to outperform their rivals. So there are sound business reasons, as well as social ones, for boosting diversity and inclusion through flexible working.

And on the subject of the business case, our Fair Flexible Futures projects showed that investing in flexible working can pay for itself within three years, due to reduced sickness absence and increased staff retention.

Let’s not miss out on the D & I benefits that flexible working can bring

So, instead of going hell for leather trying to get everyone back into the office, it would be better for leaders to step back a bit. To think about whether their business and talent imperatives could be well-served by introducing flexible working – of varying kinds, to match the needs of their current and future workforce – and to invest a bit of time and resources in doing it well.

The arrival of ‘Day One Flex’ rights in April means that now is the perfect time to revisit your flexible working strategy, and embedding D & I into it makes a lot of sense. If you’re not sure where to start, or how best to take it further, we’re here to help.

Published February 2024

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