Equality, Diversity & Inclusion, Management

How flexible working drives diversity and creates equity and inclusion

01 October 2021 by Heidi Marshall

The last 18 months has been a period of rapid change. HR professionals, business leaders and policy makers are discussing permanent changes to organisations’ approach to flexible working. But how does this shift drive diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace?

In 2020, 47% of the working population worked from home, with 86% doing so because of the pandemic (ONS, 2020). As work transitioned to online for many office-based employees, so did other areas of life including home schooling, appointments and grocery shopping. No longer were living rooms just a place to retreat to after a long day. Overnight they became an office, a gym, a cinema and a hub of every-day life.

Flexible working has now become the norm - the enforced experiment of homeworking has largely been a success. Figures show that 85% of working adults want a hybrid approach between working from home and the office (ONS, 2021) Although, truly flexible working is more than that. It’s about allowing employees to decide how working works best for them – for example, the timing and location of their work, or whether they work part-time, compressed hours or flexi-time.

The government are taking note as, in September 2021, The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy began a consultation with the goal of amending existing flexible working legislation. The aim is to give employees the freedom to request this from day one of the job.

This is in response to building the country back after Covid, but also in response to the success of flexible working over the last 18 months. For example, the BBC reports that 43 out of 50 of the UK’s largest employers plan to use a combination of remote and in-person working, while further research shows that 87% of employees would like to work more flexibly. From both an individual and organisational level, attitudes are shifting.

Being a flexible employer attracts a more diverse applicant pool - research from PwC shows that globally, flexibility and work life balance is identified as a top three attractive employer trait. Not only this, but greater diversity leads to a more productive workforce, higher staff engagement and profitability. For example, £393bn is estimated in economic growth by increasing EDI of the UK workforce by 10% (Accenture).

With the future of work changing, it’s important to consider how this might impact equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) within your organisation. There are several benefits to giving employees more autonomy in their working day through recognising the roles people might have outside of work.

How flexible working drives diversity and inclusion

Increased trust

Having the option to work flexible hours and deciding which days to come into the office benefits different types of workers including younger workers, people with disabilities and those with families and employees on lower salaries.

For this to work, there needs to be an element of trust from the employer. While employers might have been sceptical about homeworking prior to the pandemic, evidence from the London Chamber shows that 83% of office-based businesses are allowing staff to work from home at least one day a week.

The results of allowing workers more agency in their work? People feel empowered to be their full self at work and take accountability for their own day and workload.

Ability to adapt to ever changing circumstances

Since the pandemic, people of all ages have had to adapt to a lockdown, a tier system, another lockdown, and then adjusting to no restrictions. But Covid is still here. This means people may have to isolate due to catching the virus, look after family members who are ill or deal with the challenges of children being sent home from school.

The truth is that the complexities and uniqueness of people’s circumstances have always been there. Covid has just highlighted this on a mass scale. Flexible working allows people to adjust to changing circumstances. This is particularly true for parents, as organisations who are family friendly report a higher level of job satisfaction, especially for employees who might feel like they’re being held back otherwise. A survey for the BBC reveals that (56%) of women said that working from home makes them feel as though they could progress more in their career, as childcare and caring duties become less of a hindrance.

Recommendations for your teams

1. Have a conversation with your employees about what works for them. If your organisation requires that people come into the office, find out which days are suitable for the individual and works for the wider team. If you offer flexible hours, let your staff members know this. Keep the role and environment as agile as possible and offer autonomy as much as you can – remind your employees that they are adults and treat them as such.

2. Keep the dialogue going. It’s important to continually check in with your employees, especially those who are working flexibly. Out of sight, out of mind can be very common when it comes to fully remote working, so managers should try their best to keep the conversation going and develop a strong relationship with team members.

3. Be flexible when it comes to designing job descriptions. Just because a role has traditionally been done in a certain way, doesn’t mean it has to going forward. “We’ve always done it this way” is a dangerous precedent to set. Think about the roles in your team and challenge your assumptions about how flexibly they can be performed – can specialist equipment, for example, help make an in-office role a fully remote version? Can you job share? Could aspects of a role be given to a different team or employee? Where this isn’t possible, try to consider it for the future.

4. Find ways to measure productivity – it’s important to design output measures and KPIs to measure the success of flexibility policies as much as possible. It’s about the output, not presenteeism.

Alexia Cambon, Director for Research at Gartner, summarised this by saying: “Rather than thinking about flexible working as a black-and-white policy, it’s better to view it as a philosophy with core principles that are your guardrails. It should be employee driven, from the perspective of ‘how can I make this way of working help me to be more productive’ rather than ‘one size fits all’.” 

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