We have the evidence that more people want ‘flexible’ working than are currently able to access it. We also know that for many people flexibility apparently lies in the possibility of working remotely and during non-standard hours. On the face of it, lockdown has created these circumstances and demonstrated to employers this type of working arrangement is likely to succeed. Some pundits are already proclaiming a post pandemic ‘new normal’ where home working and flexible hours become more widespread. Others choose to disagree, suggesting employers have embraced homeworking as a temporary ‘necessary evil’ and will want a reversion to previous working arrangements as soon as permissible.
It’s an interesting debate that currently fills many pages of the internet; but it also misses the point. Extending current arrangements does little more than support #AlwaysOn working. It changes nothing.
Balanced new normal working arrangements are built on three new foundations.
- A rethink of inflexible job structures
There’s little point in flexibility about time and place if we retain existing inflexible job structures. Ones that contend jobs beyond a certain level in the hierarchy require long hours and the continuity of a single post holder. We’re increasingly accumulating evidence (and successful role models) to demonstrate that reduced hours in senior roles can be successful. That the ‘two heads are better than one’ benefits of job-share often outweigh slightly higher costs. And especially when it comes to increasing women’s representation in senior roles and reducing gender pay gaps, rethinking how we design work is an essential.
- Realigning HR practices
So many of our current HR policies are out of line with any attempts at balanced working. Employees who work from home often pay a penalty as a consequence of their lack of visibility with senior decision makers. They may be passed over when it comes to career defining assignments, or simply considered less committed in cultures that value long hours over productive outputs.
Even more enlightened HR policies such as those sanctioning reduced hours at senior levels are rarely supported with the requisite follow through. I’m tired of reading social media posts from women who’ve been allowed to reduce their hours with little or no guidance about how to reduce their workload accordingly.
- Tackling biased thinking
I rarely write about bias. It’s a tricky area. The jury is still out as to the effectiveness of the Unconscious Bias training that’s currently so popular in many workplaces. The evidence suggests that making people aware of their biases can be counterproductive. And when it comes to our quest for balanced working there are a number of biases that get in the way of women. Many are embedded in outmoded working practices and assumptions that working mothers must choose between a focus on family or one on work. As Stew Friedman has pointed out, professionals increasingly want to focus on getting the best out of both. Tackling many of these implicit biases requires open and honest conversations; rather than decisions based on unvoiced assumptions.
This week I encourage you to actively choose a new normal that supports balanced working by challenging outmoded assumptions and practices; and encouraging your employer to address these three essential foundations for a balanced workplace.