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For years, flexible working has been high on the agenda for companies looking to promote more women into senior management. With an enforced switch to remote working driven by COVID-19, there has been a seismic shift in attitudes to the potential and challenges of flexible practices. But will these changes become embedded in businesses?
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With a large proportion of office-based workers abruptly transferred to a home working model due to COVID-19, businesses were forced to adapt. Once the pandemic abates, it is likely that some of these adaptations will persist, with the creation of hybrid working structures. Businesses have reported seeing new levels of productivity and connectedness; remote working has been recognised as viable and inclusive; and new types of leadership based on trust and respect have emerged. When the challenges of enforced home working – such as home schooling and less-than-ideal working spaces – recede, and flexible working can be more tailored, the positives will be enhanced.

Benefiting from new working practices

A 2020 poll by Gartner shows that 48% of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19, versus 30% before the pandemic. But if flexible working is to be inclusive, businesses need to consider where, for how long, and at what times people work. “Diversity leaders will need to be involved in role design and creation of flexible work systems to ensure that employees of all backgrounds and needs are considered when the organisation designs new workflows,” says Ingrid Laman, vice president of research and advisory at Gartner.

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To be successful, these workflows need to be beneficial for both employer and employee. “Virtual working has helped to support more inclusive working practices, for leaders willing to embrace the voice of their people; it has enabled more effective mobilisation of listening platforms; and improved digital technology has allowed more inclusive work practices and decision-making to develop,” says Sarah Talbott, partner and gender diversity lead for Grant Thornton UK. “This will enable flexible ways of working to work more easily and quickly in organisations, helping businesses to reimagine traditional leadership roles and enabling more access to talent.”

Keeping all team members visible and included

One of the challenges of flexible working is ensuring people aren’t overlooked when out of the regular routine of the office. Managers need to communicate with staff, and keep them connected. Marivic Españo.png“The leaders of an organisation must provide guidelines so that people are clear on their responsibilities when they’re not on site,” says Marivic Españo, chairperson and CEO at P&A Grant Thornton. “Regular checkpoints via email, chat groups, or virtual meetings are helpful. It’s about reaching out and making sure they feel included.”

Ngozi Ogwo.pngThere are circumstances, however, where not being seen can facilitate an inclusive culture, and empower female colleagues. “If you’re working virtually, it’s no longer about gender, it’s no longer about colour: it’s your level of productivity and efficiency that speaks. It ends up reducing unconscious bias,” believes Ngozi Ogwo, managing partner/CEO of Grant Thornton Nigeria. “In the long run, it will promote the tenets of inclusion and diversity because people will be allowed to be themselves. The culture will be so inclusive that everybody will be given equal opportunities to prove what they can be and what they can do.”

Discover more

According to Grant Thornton’s Women in Business research, 31% of companies offer flexible working arrangements to support women to progress into senior management.

Explore the other positive actions being pursued by businesses.