Flexibly Attractive

Joey Tait, develop MD, asks if recruitment needs to be more flexible to attract women.

After a year of fluctuations in freedom and restrictions, it feels as though the end is finally in sight. According to the UK Government’s ‘COVID roadmap’, we could be completely back to normal by June of this year.

It’s a big relief to us all, and yet there is still some anxiety about what normal will look like in a post-COVID world. Though some organisations have made bold statements regarding their intentions to always allow remote working (or the opposite), many are as yet undecided. To work from home or to not work from home, remains the question.

On the whole, recruiters seem among the most desperate to get back to the office. There’s a lot of talk about the need for a busy sales environment to increase productivity, and, of course, our industry skews younger. Younger consultants are less likely to have found their dream home – especially in London – and so have that extra motivation to come to the office. Plus, the socialisation and office buzz is probably a big part of the appeal of the job to 20-something workers.

But recruitment also skews male – and I wonder if becoming more flexible as an industry could help encourage more women into recruitment roles. Currently, almost one third of agencies have just five per cent or less female representation at board level. We’re not attracting enough talent at the beginning of the pipeline, and we’re losing it somewhere along the way too.


Does remote working actually benefit women?

There’s a lot of mixed opinion on this. In theory, women could benefit from an increase in remote working by removing the stigma attached to working from home – the idea that it is somehow less worthy compared to full-time office work. By reducing time spent commuting, it’s possible that women could more easily maintain full-time jobs, thereby avoiding losing career momentum during their caregiving years.

In fact, research shows that flexibility at work allows mothers to maintain their working hours post-childbirth, staying in relatively stressful yet well-paying roles even through times of high family demand. So far, so good.


More time at home ≠ better work life balance

However, remote working doesn’t always lead to a better work/life balance, as many of us have found over the last 12 months. The average UK employee is putting in an additional two hours a day since we were first asked to work remotely last year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also seen an increase in childcare and domestic work for women – who were already typically doing three quarters of this work. Previous studies have shown that when offered flexible working, women are more likely to carry out domestic responsibilities, while men tend to increase their unpaid overtime hours.

Crucially, there’s no evidence to suggest that flexible working policies lead to the advancement of women to senior levels, though it can help to improve retention of women. Clearly, if firms are to implement flexible working policies, this alone will not be enough to improve gender diversity.


Return of the old boys’ club

Informal networks and who gets involved with quick or informal decision-making discussions tends to be formed by casual ‘similarities attract’ principles. As male decision makers are still more common that female leaders, it’s likely that these kinds of informal networks benefit men over women.

Working from home reduces the opportunity for physical networking, which might make it more difficult for women to tap into the career benefits which come from being in close and easy contact with decision makers. There’s also the danger of a ‘two-tier’ employee system, whereby workers who choose to come to the office are shown preferential treatment over their remote counterparts. Again, this comes down to culture and ensuring fairness, collaboration and inclusion, particularly when it comes to decision-making.


How can we better support working parents?

Someone said to me recently that our working world was designed for a Victorian gentleman, and nothing much has changed since then. And it’s true, for the most part, the working environment assumes that, in a heterosexual relationship, the woman will be the primary caregiver. While things have moved on legislatively, and more often than not it is expected that both parents will work, little has been done to make the workplace easier for parents.

And this doesn’t work for men or women. Most men want to take on more domestic responsibilities, particularly childcare. However, the majority of the time both parents will also want to work, making it difficult to arrange for childcare. Working hours tend to be longer than school hours, for example, meaning that it’s likely one parent will need to make changes at work in order to take this on.


Should we encourage more men to work flexibly?

It’s supporting parents that got me thinking about this in the first place, as we currently have three expectant fathers at develop HQ. I know that they want to do their share of the childcare and have a work/life balance which enables them to spend time at home while still advancing in their careers. Just as women do.

We need to build working cultures which anticipate that men will want to work flexibly, and will want to take on their share of childcare and domestic work. Again, that starts with building a culture of fairness and inclusion, where no bias is shown to those who prefer to work in the office.


Do workers really want to work from home?

Study after study says that the majority of workers want remote working at least some of the time. They tend to cite benefits such as better work/life balance, reduced commute, fewer associated costs and more autonomy over their own time. Few people seem to prefer working from home purely because they don’t like the office environment, meaning there are other ways to offer them the benefits of remote working.

We’ve decided to focus on autonomy moving forward, as and when restrictions allow. Our team will be asked to come into the office on Mondays, but the rest of the week is up to them. We’ll also ask new recruits to come into the office five days a week until they pass probation, in order to ensure they’re getting the support they need at the beginning.

Like most recruitment agencies, we do want to attract more women to our business. Not because we haven’t got some brilliant men on board, but because diverse companies are better by almost every measurable statistic.


Change that benefits everyone

We talk about changes to recruitment that could encourage more women into the industry, but in reality, don’t these initiatives benefit everyone? Who doesn’t want more freedom to choose how and when and where they work?

Becoming a more flexible industry doesn’t just make it easier for recruitment to attract and retain talented women, it makes the industry more competitive as a whole. As a sector quite literally built on the attraction of talent, it baffles me sometimes how recruitment can so often be immune to its own advice.

The world of work has been turned upside down in the last 12 months, and it is now up to use to choose a better working culture, rather than reverting to what we’ve always known. It’s time to make decisions based on what could be, not what has been.

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