Women in business 2021

Making the flexible model work

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Fiona Hathorn, CEO of Women On Boards UK, considers how businesses and employees have benefited from flexible working during the coronavirus pandemic, and how they can continue to do so

The benefits of flexible working were known long before Covid-19 appeared. It improves productivity and staff retention due to the greater autonomy and work-life balance that employees experience.

For these benefits to be realised, however, flexible working must happen within an empowered employee culture. This requires leaders who inspire their teams, rather than cling to outdated, controlling management practices. The Women On Boards Leadership Programme has shared a modern, inclusive approach for over five years in the UK. The pandemic has moved these skills from being a ‘nice to have’ to a necessity.

We need to embed collaborative, progressive leadership styles going forward, whether teams remain remote, return to offices or – more likely for most – adopt a hybrid model.

The future of flexibility

I would caution that the current situation is not indicative of flexible working. Pandemic stress, grief and additional childcare responsibilities all impact employees’ performance. The initial data shows women have been disproportionately subject to furlough and redundancy. The pandemic has proved that flexible, remote working is logistically possible, but we will need to see what happens in more ‘normal’ times to truly understand its potential.

Longer-term flexible working could certainly enhance diversity and inclusion, for example, by allowing couples to balance domestic responsibilities more equally and offering greater access to roles for those with disabilities.

However, this is far from an inevitable result. I fear we may see a resurgence of the old pattern of dedicated female staff being passed over for promotion in favour of less competent, but highly vocal, peers. Research shows it is vital for those who do not ‘look like’ traditional leaders to make their achievements known. A remote-working context requires an even more conscious approach to championing your own success.

Being seen from a remote office

For leaders, ensuring that performance and progression align within their teams isn’t rocket science, but it does require robust systems. Like adopting progressive leadership styles, strong performance management mechanisms move from being beneficial to essential in a flexible context.

To support female employees with progression in the current context, my advice to leaders is the same as it has always been: help them build a plan.

Career planning is not ‘once and done’, but a continuous process of managing your career, connections and influence spheres. Key to this is understanding influence in your organisation – who are the key influencers (hint: they are not always in the most powerful positions) and what currencies are valued? Is it creative ideas, sales cost savings – or what? Women in business must not be afraid to seek those high-profile opportunities, and never underestimate the power of simply telling people what they have achieved and where they want to be.

Finally, taking on a board role can really help increase development opportunities for employees seeking progression. Becoming a non-executive at even a small organisation, like a charity or sports club, offers whole-organisation strategic experience and wider leadership development. So many Women On Boards members successfully balance a board role (or two) alongside successful executive careers.

Flexible working has huge potential to enhance diversity and inclusion – but it will be the leadership styles and systems that support it that count.

Discover more

According to Grant Thornton’s Women in Business research, at 31%, the number of women in senior management has finally surpassed the 30% tipping point needed to catalyse real change. But the actions of leaders will determine the direction of travel from here.

Take a look at our latest report to explore the impact of Covid-19 on the D&I landscape

A window of opportunity
A window of opportunity
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