How working from home is levelling the playing field

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The lockdown has caused a major shift in organisational dynamics with the lack of an office-based central power promoting diversity and inclusion, argues Elva Ainsworth

Surprising things are happening for everyone in every area of life; for example, the massive increase in working from home, the advent of furloughing plus the sudden requirement to look after most schoolchildren at home. Three big changes with three different results.

Various studies are showing that the proportion of the working population based at home has doubled to nearly 60% in the past few months and many organisations are 100% remote working for the first time.

This is hugely significant because it has seen the locus of power shift from being office-centred to being fully distributed. What impact is this having on cultural and organisational dynamics?

Virtual meetings mean less political manoeuvring, no strategic positioning around the table or standing tall. You are more obviously only there to deal with the matter in hand. There are no opportunities to informally “have a quiet word”. It is a more level playing field for all”

A number of different patterns are emerging that we are only just starting to spot and understand but they seem to be generating inclusion. This is something we may wish to understand better before we return to old ways post-pandemic and is worth investigating.

Like many I have faced having to work at home while managing children; something that may be causing dramatic and opposite effects. Mainstream remote working seems to be equalising the field in a magical way whereas the demands of having children at home are having a devastating impact on the availability and focus of the main carer.

Women are proportionately more likely to be primary carers so this is likely to seriously disadvantage women in their work this year. This is showing up in the disproportionate numbers of women being furloughed for instance.

Disappearing from the workforce, even though this is temporary and totally understandable, will not help the career progression or career development of these individuals. We do not yet know what the medium or longer-term impact of this “stepping out” will be but we need to be mindful of this situation by offering further support and flexibility and by challenging selection decisions where appropriate.

These pressures on women may be offset by the benefits of this new virtual workplace, however. Many studies have shown us that working from home leads to increased productivity but this new situation, where the majority is operating virtually, is displaying some very different and additional benefits. These are:

Removal of the ‘us’ and ‘them

When you are one of a virtual group it feels very different to when you are in the less visible minority. I have been remote from my team for two years since I relocated to York and I was used to the experience of “phoning in” whenever I spoke to a team member. Now I am one of the group phoning another. The power base of the office is literally standing empty. And this empowers (and slightly disorientates) each of us.

Increased personal control and autonomy

Of course, offices are designed and furnished for the average worker. But when working from home, you can organise your desk, computer, phone, your background music, your temperature, light, your breaks, your position, even your schedule, all your own way. If you are an average-type person then this won’t make much difference to you, but if you have quirky needs then this is fantastic news. I have a chronic back condition and need to lie down frequently to be pain-free. I am also super chilly but now I can regulate my own workspace temperature and be warm enough. The lack of a commute means I have more energy. This new freedom to manage your own pace and environment is proving to be supremely good news for those who have chronic health conditions. The ability to personalise your working life has got to be good for diversity and inclusion.

Prioritisation on wellbeing and support

The physical distance means we cannot keep an eye on how everyone is as easily as usual. The potential for isolation and people getting stuck struggling means that we, as a community, are now prioritising the safety of our people at a higher level. Extra effort is being made to do this now via phone and online meetings. We are giving people time and offering support more vocally and deliberately than before and this is helping people feel comfortable in their new work situation and to feel fully included.

The new structure of home working has stripped us of ways to categorise and label others. These factors are accelerating cultural change and support an agenda of promoting a diverse and inclusive organisation”

Increased focus on reality

Online meetings are intense. They demand a certain focus and attention from participants. There is less likely to be “fluff” in interactions, timekeeping is tighter. Everyone gets on with the conversation to hand. This means there is less political manoeuvring, no strategic positioning around the table or standing tall. You are more obviously only there to deal with the matter in hand. My experience is that there is less time given to settling in, rapport-building, less holding court and, of course, there is a lot less travel time to find people and literally no opportunities to informally “have a quiet word.” It is a more level playing field for all.

Removal of traditional cultural anchors

Years ago it was the name on a car parking space and entry to the Directors’ Dining Room. These days it has been the PA, the office position, size and view as well as height, age, dress and stature and other more subtle signs and symbols. Now we are all head shots on screens – again a more equal playing field. It is now about accountabilities and your voice in online meetings, telephone calls and emails. Clear, purposeful and empowering communication naturally then becomes more important as status symbols disappear from view.

In essence, “people and humanity have been brought to the centre of the business allowing people to show up with no or less masks” (Isabelle Punjol, D&I Consultant). The new structure of home working has stripped us of ways to categorise and label others. These factors are accelerating cultural change and support an agenda of promoting a diverse and inclusive organisation. So, carers have become more invisible while traditional barriers have dissipated. Both shifts are impacting inclusion in significant and opposite ways.

But where do we in HR want this to go? Let’s stand up for majority homeworking as a long-term prospect alongside the rights for those with home-based responsibilities. If virtual work is better for us as a community and for the environment, why ever not?

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