Part of the Future of Work Series from Deployed.
Work is becoming more agile, flexible, and distributed. The supply of labour is changing in every industry. This series features Deployed's research on the progression of the changing face of work.
Inequalities existed in the workplace long before the pandemic. People experience disparities between the salaries they and their colleagues are paid, barriers to accessing promotions or new jobs, harassment and microaggressions, or a lack of job security. Despite pressure on businesses to reduce discrimination and inequalities in the workplace, many people are continuing to experience differences in the way they are treated at work, based on factors such as their gender, age, race, sexual orientation, disability, social class, or geography. Indeed, in 2021 over a third of UK workers report facing some kind of discrimination at work or when applying for job.
Whilst progress towards reducing many workplace inequalities has been slower than expected, we saw the opposite in response to COVID-19 as organisations rapidly introduced a new way working. In early 2020, companies around the world - across sectors - began to reimagine how and where they worked. The most visible example was the adoption of home-working: in 2020 almost half of UK workers carried out some of their work at home. We also saw the closure of sectors such as retail and hospitality and the emergence of new skills gaps.
The benefits of homeworking are clear. People spend less time commuting, there are fewer geographical restrictions, and it gives people more flexibility - particularly if the business supports flexible hours or part-time working. All these factors can potentially lead to improved inclusivity and access. With many organisations therefore anticipating some level of hybrid-working as they plan for a post-pandemic future, how can we ensure that the future of work is fairer and does not widen existing workplace inequalities?
Scrap the “one size fits all” approach
There are undeniable benefits of homeworking for some people. But we should also be aware that by assuming homeworking will be beneficial for a particular group of people, we may actually disadvantage individuals within that group. For example, assuming that people with caring responsibilities prefer to work from home in order to balance their work-life commitments. It's been shown that for mothers, working from home could actually lead to a worse work-life balance and burnout, as they often take on a greater share of household tasks in addition to their caring and work responsibilities. Home-working does not always equal flexible working but it does require a person-centred approach with clear boundaries.
Flexibility requires a systemic change
Organisations rapidly implemented the digital technologies underpinning new ways of working, adopting technologies 3-4 years earlier than anticipated. However, true 'flexible' working requires a much larger cultural shift. A recent survey showed that 1 in 4 women have considered reducing or leaving work during the pandemic because of company inflexibility. Organisations must have Equality, Diversity and Inclusion practices and policies that go beyond remote communication, and genuinely support a range of requests for flexible working. For example, the redesign of job roles to accommodate part-time or flexible workers.
Become aware of new inequalities
If organisations adopt a hybrid working model, they must ensure that there aren't consequences for those opting to spend more time at home and less time in the office. Experts warn it could widen existing inequalities if there is an implication that employees who come into the office are 'more committed'. This assumption risks further disadvantaging several groups that have already been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. For example, people with caring commitments or those people at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Indeed, up to 5% of people felt they had experienced discrimination at work and when applying for jobs as a result of being in an at-risk category. Make it clear that both ways of working are equally valued. For example, introducing neutral and transparent promotion and selection policies.
This article has shown that although the future of work has the potential to reduce existing disparities, without careful consideration it risks making them worse. As organisations begin to implement post-pandemic ways of working, they must also reconsider how they tackle inequalities at work.