The past 17 months have seen a revolution in the office environment.
The switch to working from home (WFH), and subsequent hybrid working, has had an undeniable impact on people’s lives, both within and outside the workplace. As is often the case, this impact is felt more for those in minority groups.
For some, the change to home-working has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities.
For example, the change to WFH has meant the majority of housework and childcare is now falling on women’s shoulders, with a study by Britain’s Office for National Statistics highlighting, on average, women carried out two thirds of daily childcare duties during 2020’s lockdown. Moreover, women report feeling increased pressure, exhaustion and burnout, and were also more likely to consider leaving their jobs than men. Some employment experts have even suggested a switch to more home-working may widen the gender gap already exacerbated by lockdown.
For others, WFH brings to the fore positive improvements.
The physical working world is rife with imbalance. However, online, these power dynamics are lessened, offering a swathe of accessibility benefits. This can result in increased opportunity and independence for those living with mental and physical health conditions.
Remote working can also improve people’s sense of confidence and inclusion. For some in the LGBTQ+ community, the more intentional interactions that WFH offers, can make it easier to share pronouns and be more upfront about identities. According to a non-binary person in a recently published CNBC article, WFH “means having greater control of their surroundings and less pressure to present themselves in a certain way”.
Similarly, remote working has been linked to higher rates of inclusion among Black workers, who in a recent Future Forum survey, reported a 50% increase in their sense of workplace belonging and ability to manage stress when working from home. However, for many Black workers, this sense of inclusion is rooted in the fact that working online frees them from micro-aggressions and, to quote the survey results, “pressure to conform to white standards of professionalism”.
Clearly, flexibility can mask deeper issues of systemic inequalities in the workplace.
For some, it is the choice itself, between WFH or office work, that serves to widen those systemic inequalities between those in the office and at home. Joeli Brearley, founder of a charity that supports women facing maternity or pregnancy discrimination, believes, “Those with caring responsibilities or with disabilities will tend to stay at home and… will look like they’re less committed to their job, they won’t have as good a relationship with their manager, the person that can promote them and give them a pay rise.”
So, what can businesses take from this?
Flexibility alone is not enough. Employers should implement holistic diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives, policies and practices, that foster equity, value difference, and lead to a workforce that feels supported, no matter where they work. Without such initiatives, workplaces – virtual or otherwise – run the risk of perpetuating exclusionary power dynamics.
To see what ‘good’ DE&I looks like, please click here to read Corporate Citizenship’s view.
Author: Orlaith McGuinness