Flexible working is undoubtedly a core component of the modern working world. Enabled by technology, and commercial considerations, employers are increasingly offering flexibility on where, how and when employees work. However, although they have the option workers are choosing not to take this up, with many worried it will slow their career progression.
Our latest Gender Diversity Report 2017 found that whilst 83% of employees want the option to work flexibly, over three-quarters of women and 65% of men think it is damaging to their career.
Employees also shared concerns around shared parental leave. Even though over three-quarters of workers feel that shared parental leave will improve gender diversity at work, fathers aren’t taking up the option. Nearly a third of workers believe men would be perceived as being less committed to their career if they took shared parental leave.
Our report highlighted that career progression is adversely impacted more for women than for men after returning to the workplace, following a period of parental leave. Almost 4 out of 5 men kept their current role or moved into a more senior one, whereas 3 out of 10 women who returned to the workplace after having children, took a part time role or a lower paid one. Men were also more than twice as likely to be promoted as women after having had children. Although flexible working and shared parental leave are structures designed to help bridge the gender gap, employees are clearly worried about the adverse impact the taking up of these policies will have on their career.
So what can be done to improve perception?
Employers need to look at how they are communicating the benefits of these policies to their staff. Helping senior leadership and front line managers clearly articulate the benefits of these policies, not just to the individual, but also the wider organisation, will go some way to address and counter negative perceptions and concerns. Celebrating the continued success and career experiences of those who do work flexibly and/or return to the workplace after extended leave, is also essential.
Other suggested actions include:
Appointing an executive level D&I champion. This is often cited as the most important first step for employers looking to make real change with D&I policies. This sets up a dynamic of commitment and accountability in that ‘what gets valued gets measured’ and ‘what gets measured gets done’.
Encouraging the take up of shared parental when planning for a return to work. Reassuring employees, regardless of gender, that they have the opportunity to split their parental leave allocation, will encourage more active consideration for co-parenting. This in turn may help if both parents wish to combine their professional and parenting responsibilities.
Improving communication whilst on leave. A number of employers now offer ‘keeping in touch’ and phased ‘return to work’ schemes to parents. This is an ideal way of maintaining communication, strengthen a greater sense of belonging and often increased confidence, on the part of the person taking an extended period of leave. It will also aid the transition back to work and result in higher productivity levels.
Making sure flexible workers have the same opportunities as those who work a more traditional work pattern. Even if they might not always be as visible in the office as some other colleagues, those who opt to adopt a different working pattern should have access to the same development opportunities as those who opt not to. Line managers should be trained to be aware of this need for even-handed consideration.
It goes without saying that driving policies and programmes for greater diversity, inclusion and balance in organisations, can be challenging. It requires understanding, ongoing dedication and attention to encourage employees to feel more comfortable in taking advantage of the D&I policies which are designed to support a more equal workforce.