Does flexible working improve or create less inequality
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Does flexible working improve or create less inequality?

This is not an easy question to answer. Flexible working affects us differently.

2 September 2021

This is not an easy question to answer. Flexible working affects us differently. 

There are so many socio-economic factors to consider. The sector you work in, your age, your gender, and even your marital status can determine whether you will benefit from flexible working. 

Let me make this clear. What I’m talking about is flexible working becoming the new normal. It hasn’t quite reached there yet, but we are heading towards that direction. Most companies are yet to roll out a permanent flexible work policy and are still mulling over their options. 

What is clear though is that this is coming. The majority of experienced employees no longer want to work in a highly structured 9-to-5 office work environment. So, most companies know that they need to incorporate flexible working as part of their employment policy. 

When I talk about flexible working, what I’m describing is a hybrid model of work. Workers in the future will work partially at home and partially in the office. 

This is the mix most workers favour i.e. Neither being 100% in the office nor 100% in a remote setting. It’s the sweet spot for most employees. The problem is that there are some major hurdles that need to be overcome. 

In some instances, flexible working might even increase inequality.

 

This matters in recruitment 

If this issue isn’t addressed it could affect how a company retains employees, attracts new talent and promotes its own employer brand. In fact, as we have already seen this year, it has sparked off some fierce debates. Take Goldman Sachs for instance. It’s a fantastic case study of how badly an employer brand can get damaged by not addressing flexible working in a constructive way. 

If you remember, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon recently describe working from home as an "aberration". Soon afterwards, bankers at Goldman Sachs were swiftly ordered to return to the office in July. Now, in an apparent U-turn, Goldman Sachs announced that workers that weren't vaccinated would have to stay at home anyway. 

It's not just the flip-flopping on working arrangements that was the issue. There is also a darker side to this story. There were horrendous reports about how younger workers had to endure hundred plus hour work weeks and was suffering sleep deprivation, while working from home. 

If you remember, David Solomon’s concerns focused on the younger workforce and the lack of a “collaborative apprenticeship culture” in a remote setting. It was a subtle reference to how younger workers were suffering from the remote work environment.

 

Flexible working means equality for some yet inequality for others 

This is the problem. It’s not so simple as I said at the beginning. 

To understand the heart of this problem, we need to go back to a time before the pandemic. Prior to Covid, there were many large companies that were trying to become more inclusive and promote diversity in the workplace. 

From a recruitment perspective, most candidates didn’t take these diversity claims too seriously. Covid-19 however, changed everything. Suddenly, flexible working offered a solution. 

Working mothers had more time to take care of their children. Pets suddenly had their owners to dote on them more frequently. You had the freedom to do your groceries when you wanted or go for a jog. The power of technology also meant you could talk to your team effortlessly from the comfort of home. 

But there were also social inequalities being created at the same time. It was very much a case of the “haves” versus the “have-nots”. 

If you didn’t have a family then there was a risk of feeling isolated and lonely. If you were a younger worker, it became much more difficult to gain experience, especially if you never set foot inside a company that hired you. And, if you worked in a restaurant, a gym or a supermarket, then you could never benefit from flexible working anyway. 

These divisions only came apparent once the pandemic arrived and remote working became the norm. But there is one division that trumps them all – the digital divide.

 

What is the digital divide? 

The pandemic meant that we were increasingly working, learning and interacting online with our colleagues. Subsequently, the gap between those who lacked digital skills and IT literate workers increased significantly. Setting up a Zoom call or having access to the right technology became absolutely crucial. Inevitably, there were a group of people who became disadvantaged by this new remote work environment. 

Suddenly, you were expected to have access to high-quality broadband, space to work and some decent office equipment, including a computer, WebCam, desk and chair. 

Most of the attention in the media has been about how school children from poorer families have been affected by this change. But the digital divide also affects workers – especially older workers. Flexible working can only work if you have access to the right technology and you know how to use it. If you don't then you are at a disadvantage. 

The digital divide will take time to close, but until then there will be a form of digital inequality. The complexity of how flexible working can or may not work for different employees overall, needs to be considered. 

Companies will need to think beyond just issuing a policy on flexible working and also think about how they can equip and reskill their workforce for this new form of working. If they succeed, they will add to their employer brand and create a more digitally inclusive environment.

Luca Semeraro

Head of Badenoch & Clark
Zurich, Switzerland

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