Are Women in the Workplace Being Pushed Back to Office Working?

Women in the Workplace

What is the Official Guidance on Returning to the Office for Women in the Workplace?

In England, the official guidance to work from home where possible has ended and many workers have headed back to the office.

Things are going back to normal. But what if we don’t want things to go back to the old normal?

The pandemic has changed the working environment so significantly that flexible and hybrid working have become major advantages benefited by many UK workers.

As businesses request their employees come back to workplaces – some for the first time since March 2020 – some believe employees, especially women, are being made to do so against their will.

The employers that have requested a return to the office have stated that face-to-face interactions are better for collaboration; some believe that employees are less productive at home. However, many employees want to work from home. The wish to reduce commuting, and being available for childcare, has increased as the pandemic persisted.

Women Returning to the Office

On the whole, women aren’t returning to work to the same extent as men, and when they are working, they are more likely to be working from home.

Many women are looking for a hybrid work arrangement and would prefer to spend fewer days in the office than male colleagues. Caregiving responsibilities, whether for children or for elderly parents, even in 2022, still regularly fall to women. Before the pandemic, the morning and afternoon was often a pattern of stress and racing around for many women: getting children to and from school, childcare before and after work and maintaining housework.  Many men do this too, of course, but statistics show more women have primary childcare responsibilities than men.

Retain Talent with Greater Flexibility

Employers need to become more flexible in work-from-home and hybrid arrangements as they extend job offers and make post-pandemic plans. As talent is recruited and employers look to retain employees, they can extend a wider net and recruitment strategy beyond their own postcode.

Impact of Career Progression on Those Who Work From Home

However, the impact of work from home on women’s promotions, career development and earning potential is a potential setback. Organisations and managers need to establish a better, more fair workplace for women – and all employees – who work remotely.

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The pandemic has proven that working from home can work. Being in the office may offer benefits of building relationships and company morale, but managers need to think about what has been learned over the past two years.

There are still a considerable number of women who left their careers after having children who only felt they had to because of a lack of workplace flexibility. In the new more flexible world of work, women should not have to choose between their career and family commitments.

Flexibility would mean the focus is on the quality of work, not where the work gets done. By leading with empathy, employers create an environment where female employees feel comfortable asking for flexibility in order to do their best work.

Not Everyone Wants to Work From Home

However, flexibility from employers is key. Although working from home has proved valuable for some parents, it does not suit everybody and should not be treated as a universal solution. While the last two years have shown that home working can be effective, it is often much easier for those with bigger houses and more space. There are those that are living in a bedsit or a shared house for whom it has been difficult.

What is needed from employers is  to offer a degree of flexibility, and communicate well with their staff, so that people can choose working patterns that work for them.

Talk to Your Colleagues

If your boss is asking you to return to the workplace or stay at home and you don’t feel comfortable, you could speak to other employees and your union rep if you have one – you may not be the only employee with these concerns. 

If you raise the issue together with your employer, they’re more likely to listen. Employers shouldn’t be forcing changes on anyone without due consultation. You and your colleagues should clearly lay out what you want and why it’s beneficial for both you and your employer.  

Flexible Working Requests

Under current law, all employees have the right to request flexible working arrangements.  This can include a request to change your location either permanently or for part of your working time. Any employee can make a request, you don’t have to be a parent or carer, but you must have been in the job for 26 weeks and you can only make one request per year.  

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Employers have to review these requests fairly and reply within three months. They can only turn down requests for legitimate, specified, ‘business reasons’.

What can an Employer do post-Covid?

Employers and managers need to recognise the reality of the new labour market and adapt. Working from home and hybrid working patterns are here to stay. Requiring a full-time office presence was easy in 2019 when other firms were all doing the same and fewer people had thought about doing anything differently. In 2022, ordering employees back to the office full time without any consideration of how they have functioned – and performed – over the last two years, risks the loss of top talent to rivals that do offer hybrid working arrangements.

A Hybrid Working Model

There are a multitude of potentials for a hybrid model.  Employees could come to the office three days a week and work two days from home. Office days could be scheduled for meetings, client events, training, and socialising, whereas home days could be for quiet work requiring concentration and video meetings. The challenge is for employers to find the right hybrid model for their organisation, and their staff.

Flexible Working for the Future

To be expected back in the office, with no flexibility, may well feel like a bit of a body blow. The pandemic shined the spotlight on inequalities and challenges that women have faced in the workplace for a long time. 

Organisations now have the opportunity to step up and support women as well others in their workforce by investing in flexible working.  There is plenty of evidence that empowering staff increases productivity, which ultimately is in the interests of both employers and employees.

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