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Shift to home working enables greater inclusivity

Move out of office offers flexibility but puts different set of responsibilities on employers

Work/life balance is now longer enough, we need to be striving for work/life harmony. Photograph: iStock

Work/life balance is now longer enough, we need to be striving for work/life harmony. Photograph: iStock

 

The wholesale move to home working has proven not only that it can be done but that it can work.

For Andrea Johnson, senior director of global business systems at Workhuman, an employee reward and incentive software company, the shift to remote working has had a particular impact on women.


Information from individual employees goes direct to Inclusio and is never seen by the employers. Photograph: iStock

Covid- 19 has accentuated long-standing gender imbalances, and there has been ground lost in terms of inclusion in the workplace.

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Johnson, who is also chair of Women in Technology & Science Ireland (WITS), points to the increase in the number of women participating in Skillnet’s Women ReBoot programme, by way of example. The government-backed programme helps women who have taken a career break to get back into technology roles.

Since the pandemic, more women than ever have signed up for it “because, one, it went remote, and two, they were able to do so because their partners had more flexibility because of hybrid working,” she explains.

It’s just one small example of the opportunities for greater inclusivity, and opportunity, that remote working enables, and both men and women stand to gain.

“I drove in this morning from the midlands and left the house late to miss the traffic. A couple of the guys I work with came in at the same time, because they wanted to drop their kids to school,” says Johnson, who believes men value workplace flexibility too.

“I’ve one guy on my team who wants to be involved with his children’s after-school activities. Fathers who have stayed at home for 18 months, who have been home for dinner with their family, are not prepared to give that up – and why should they?” she asks.

Simple “work/life balance” doesn’t fit the bill anymore. “It’s about work/life harmony,” says Johnson. That presents challenges for employers who only previously paid lip service to inclusive, flexible work practices.

“What you’ll get now is a differentiation between the companies with the mission statements on the wall,” and those that live them, she predicts. “This is where the rubber hits the road.”

As the hybrid workplace takes root, with some days in the office and more at home, ensuring inclusivity will require active management from employers.

“The world of work is being reimagined right now. I know with my own team we’re going to create a team charter and agree how we want to work,” says Johnson.

That will include developing an etiquette around hybrid working so that people working from home don’t feel left out, or left behind. “You want to be intentional about inclusion. For example, my own people leaders this morning started a meeting with the people working remotely, to make sure they feel heard,” she explains.

It matters because it can be harder to break into a remote conversation than it can to make an input in real life. “We’ve all been in situations where you can’t even cough to get into the conversation remotely,” she says.

If employers get it right, remote working should offer enormous benefits in terms of maintaining a diverse and inclusive workforce.

“The ability to work from anywhere has widened the talent pool for everyone, removing barriers to those groups who may have faced obstacles within the normal office-working model,” says Liz Buckley, HR director at Mazars, international audit, tax and advisory firm.

Liz Buckley, HR director at Mazars
Liz Buckley, HR director at Mazars

“Increased flexibility to facilitate working parents to manage work and family life better, reducing the commute time has increased work-life balance, which further empowers staff to bring their whole selves to work, and when managed correctly promotes positive wellbeing and mental health.”

There are significant challenges too however. Firstly, it may deepen socio-economic disadvantage where there is “inadequate home-based technology or connectivity either due to being based in a disadvantaged area or simply a location with poor infrastructure,” she says.

There is a risk that it may also herald a return to more traditional gender roles within the home, which could not alone create an inequality of demands faced by one parent over a period of time but could also, if prolonged, “cause more long-term impact in terms of access to career progression if not monitored,” cautions Buckley.

There are physical and mental health implications to look out for too, and employers have a duty of care to their employees, including those at home.

“Lack of appropriate home-working facilities, if not quickly identified, could cause injury, strain or long-term illness if prolonged. Equally, the impact in terms of mental health is far-reaching from isolation – with many people both working and studying from home – to stress and burnout caused by the sense of disconnect or increased workload,” she adds.

However, “the challenges of creating an inclusive environment, whether office-based or virtual, can be mitigated or removed with awareness and support coupled with open and transparent communication.”

Creating a culture where employees can share issues or concerns, either with their line manager or HR, is key she says, as is ensuring managers are equipped to recognise changes in patterns of behaviour causing their team members to feel excluded or isolated.

“Although technology has facilitated flexibility to ensure we can connect regardless of location, the human disconnect means it is more important than ever to maintain communication with each other, to collectively overcome any challenges to inclusivity,” she advises.

That will be critical if we are to safeguard the benefits of remote working as we head into the post-pandemic world. “We have a once in a generation opportunity to reimagine how we work,” says Johnson.

“We do that through consensus, through really good conversations and through listening. It’s about iterating, changing and tweaking things until it is right, but the main thing is to keep talking. It’s about making that connection and being intentional about it.”