Our research shows that ways of working have changed dramatically post-COVID. Just 36% of mid-market are now working in a primarily office-based way. 53% have a hybrid approach, 8% are flexible and 3% are home-based. This has a significant impact on the number of women in senior management.

In businesses adopting a hybrid model, with a defined mix of onsite and remote working, there are higher levels (34%) of women in senior management. With completely flexible working, it’s even higher at 36%. Put simply: the greater the flexibility the greater the levels of women in senior roles.

Primarily office-based businesses have a much lower level of women in senior management than businesses which operate flexible, hybrid and home-based models, at 29%. This figure is well below the global average.

Vivian Lagan, managing director, model risk and co-source services, Grant Thornton UK, comments: “People are juggling a lot of different priorities. For women in particular, having the ability to determine the flexibility of when you work, and how you work is really critical in allowing you to keep your career and professional development at the forefront, especially if you have family and care responsibilities.”

Although still in its infancy, the flexibility facilitating women’s progress in senior leadership positions could also improve cross border working and potentially access to work for people with disabilities.

Sinead Donovan comments: “The pandemic has given us a bigger pool of talent and so our workforces have become much more diverse. Businesses are able to hire people from different countries when they offer remote working. This brings real benefits to decision-making, and ultimately, to business performance.”  

Definitions of each working practice:

  • Office
    Staff are primarily office based
  • Hybrid
    A hybrid model with a defined mix of onsite and remote working
  • Complete flexibility
    Our working model is completely flexible – all staff can choose how they work
  • Home-based
    Staff are primarily home based

Guarding against negative impacts of flexible work

There is concern that a move to flexible working, if not done properly, may actually result in negative consequences for women. There is a concern that working from home may prompt them to take on more domestic or caring responsibilities, which could harm their progression.  

Sinead Donovan comments: “We need to have a note of caution when we speak about working from home being positive for women. There could be an implication that when people and organisations say it’s good for women that they can work from home, this could imply it’s because they can carry out caring and domestic tasks more easily. Particularly if women are taking on CEO and CIO roles, and working from home, there needs to be a culture in place to ensure boundaries are set and women are supported.” 

Katerina Koulouri adds: “Working from home can feel like you’re doing two jobs at once. While it certainly gives an opportunity for more balance between work and home life, and can bring the best of both worlds, it’s essential for women’s progression that the two elements don’t become blurred.”


The virtual door is open 

Increased hybrid, home and flexible working led businesses to adopt a host of new or improved initiatives to ensure employee engagement and inclusion. Prompted by the challenges of the pandemic, business leaders were quick to act and take action to create an environment where colleagues can speak up with ideas, issues and questions, and encouraged or maintained an open door policy among middle and / or senior management.

The ways of working during the pandemic provided new methods of adopting these types of initiatives, with virtual townhalls and coffee meetings providing visibility and in some cases, direct access to senior management. This openness and willingness to implement new measures must continue.

The impact of all these measures does, however, need careful monitoring and evaluation – the actions businesses took in 2022 to ensure employee engagement and inclusion were not always the measures which led to the highest levels of women in senior leadership. Paying careful attention to employees’ working styles and adapting approaches accordingly is something which only 38% of businesses did but this action, among those we analysed, correlates with the highest level of women in senior leadership – 35%.

Said Jahani comments: “At Grant Thornton Australia, we have a Gender Equality network, which is a group that provides understanding and support across the organisation. Initiatives like this are essential to boosting the number of women in senior leadership as they create a culture of what we term psychological safety – an environment where everyone can speak up on ideas and issues.”


Strategies for developing future leaders 

In terms of strategies for succession planning, our research shows that at least 95% of businesses adopted at least one of the suggested strategies to attract and retain future leaders. One third (33%) adopted a strategy to ‘Ensure clarity and equal opportunity around leadership roles’.

Other businesses chose to focus on implementing strong wellbeing training and / or support programmes, selected by 29% of mid-market firms. Businesses saw these two sets of actions as mutually exclusive, but among Grant Thornton leaders around the world, a combination of both was felt to be the most successful way of attracting and retaining future leaders.  

Devika Dixit comments: “I think the two types of strategy go hand in hand. Focusing on one or the other would not really lead to proper representation and development of senior leadership. Wellness and support programmes have become increasingly important post-COVID and we have seen a rise in the number of firms adopting these programmes. But, clarity and equal opportunity in terms of leadership roles is also crucial.”

Vivian Lagan adds: “We’ve seen a lot of investment in mid-market business in terms of setting up and establishing things like mentoring programmes. Where these initiatives are most successful at pulling women through into senior leadership positions is when the programme focuses on developing the tools to address perceived or real blockers and there is a really clear vision of how being part of that particular programme will benefit their progress.”

Getting these strategies right is more important than ever. The ‘Great Resignation’ has put pressure on skills. Employers must offer a compelling proposition to future leaders if they want them to stay or join from other firms.[i]

A word of warning

There are, however, some pitfalls to flexible working, which could impact on men and women.

  • Those who work from home could miss out on critical relationship building. Although firms have put in place measures to encourage networking from home, there are still a number of relationships that will be unwittingly or wittingly built in the workplace.

  • There’s a risk that partners who work from home may pick up more of the domestic and care work if not all businesses offer flexible working. As far as is possible, flexible or hybrid working should be the default.

  • There are worrying perceptions emerging from men about the risks to women’s careers of flexible working. Men who work in a flexible environment perceive much higher risks to women’s career progression than women do. As the majority of senior management teams are still male, there is a risk that strategic business decisions could be made based on these perceptions, rather than the lived experience of women.
Grant Thornton
Women in business 2023

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i. weforum.org - The Great Resignation is not over: A fifth of workers plan to quit in 2022, 24.06.22