The coronavirus pandemic has given rise to unprecedented changes to work environments as many of us have been forced to transition to working from home. Suddenly Zoom has become the only form of social interaction at work and the sight of bedroom cupboards, shelves stuffed with books and photos, clothes, coffee cups and small children and partners walking in and out of the room has become the norm and something we have all had to accept. Yet, despite the newfound chaos that many parents have found themselves immersed in, the world has not completely fallen apart.
So, what have we learned from this experience? Are flexible work environments here to stay, and will this benefit parents and especially working women who have long been calling for greater flexibility and a rethink of traditional working hours?
Although there has been a steady rise in workforce participation by women; according to the WGEA, 47.4% of all employed persons in Australia are women, they still overwhelmingly make up the highest of proportion of part-time workers at 68.2%. Women generally take time out of work to care for children and return to work part-time. The Australian Institute of Family Studies claims that just one in 20 Australian fathers take primary parental leave and the percentage of stay-at-home dads at 3–4% has changed little over the past ten years. Almost 60% of fathers do not use any flexible working arrangements to help care for children compared to one-quarter of mothers.
Do we need more flexible work environments?
Professor Marian Baird of Sydney University’s Business School has conducted considerable research into Australian working mothers, she said that for many women, “flexible work options are about the only way they can manage keeping their career and having children.” Although she explained that flexible work arrangements can have both a positive and negative impact on women’s careers and often the trade-off for greater flexibility leads to disadvantage in terms of salaries, superannuation and career progression.
Lucy Adamson, a director at one of the Big Four accounting firms in Australia, agrees. She works full time and is a single mother of three primary-school-aged children.
“I have been very lucky [to have had flexibility around work] but I’ve probably paid for it with my salary. I’ve worked on an hourly basis, or I’ve worked from two days a week to three days a week. When I worked on an hourly basis… it was from home. But I think that realistically when you work flexibly like that it does impact on your ability to progress and your capacity to earn a good wage,” she said.
Professor Marian Baird of Sydney University Business School talks about the challenges for women in the workplace and the effects of the coronavirus on work. Image supplied by Marian Baird.
Changes in perception, the breaking down of barriers
Perhaps one of the most prominent things that has come out of lockdown is a change in attitudes towards flexible working.
“The big thing we may have learned from COVID-19 is that men, fathers can work flexibly as well and can work from home. And if that shifts, then it could be a real benefit for working mothers,” said Marian Baird. “I think employers have seen that people can work from home and can still be productive. And men have experienced a different working life, a different pattern.”
Lucy Adamson explains that the real changes that have come from the pandemic are in perceptions and in a greater understanding from everyone that people have families.
“In certain organisations, if you’re not present, you’re not there physically, people can’t see you, they think you are not working…and so it goes back to that whole credibility thing; do you know what you are doing, can you do your job? If I can’t see you, then you’re not as capable as a person I can see in front of me. And I think that in my career that has definitely happened.”
“I would be out…in a park and my children would be there – you could hear them in the background, and I used to be very stressed about that. Whereas now I think there is just an understanding that people have families and that they are around and so there is less pressure to silence the children in the background.”
“I do think that [COVID-19] will shift that notion of presenteeism; having to be in the office. But also, what I think may have shifted is what supervisors or team leaders and managers have experienced though COVID, that they now can see people do work at home, which is what they didn’t see so easily before,” said Professor Baird.
Working from home is not always an option
Although this may be positive news for white collar workers, not everyone can work from home and in fact many of the jobs that cannot be done remotely are jobs that employ women. The ABS estimates that 2.7 million people were affected by either job loss or having their hours reduced for economic reasons between March and April this year. Some of the biggest job losses have been in retail and hospitality. “COVID-19 may have polarised the working population,” said Professor Baird. We do not yet know whether the pandemic will have had a positive or negative effect on women’s participation at work.
What will the new workplace look like?
In a new study into working environments post COVID-19, KPMG make several predictions as to how our future ways of working will change. One being an increase in the volume of remote working across all industries, but also the report predicts that the nine to five workday will be challenged and there will be a shift towards outcomes rather than input in terms of hours.
“I do think that the nine to five model had already, was already breaking down…its certainly true that the working day doesn’t match the school day, which is what a lot of parents, especially mothers find difficult to deal with,” said Professor Baird.
Perhaps the real challenge for better work/life balance and greater equality in the workplace is not what individuals need to do differently, but how organisations need to evolve and cultural expectations need to shift.
“Men tend not to work as flexibly or take as many flexible work options as women and they’re often denied them in higher proportions than women, so there is a bit more stigma attached to men taking or using flexible work. And employers are much more reluctant to allow men to work flexibly than women,” said Professor Baird.
It’s certainly true that families and the need for childcare have become a lot more visible during the pandemic. In the workplaces of the future, employers need to step up and provide both men and women with the opportunities to balance their home and work lives more effectively and create new ways of working that fit in with our modern lives. Now is the time to make this a real turning point in gender equality.
Have your say, what are your views on more flexible working environments and work/life balance? Leave your comments below.
Images by Jenny Welsh, Tessa Morrison and Debbie Aurelius (supplied).