Everyday knowledge of business organisations usually assumes that the way work is arranged is objective and neutral, not favouring one type of person over another.
This includes our assumed-understanding of the conventional employee as someone who works full time, has a strong attachment to work and is willing to work long hours to get the job done. This person is, in other words, a member of the presenteeism culture which has long been the hallmark of business arenas such as London.
While presenteeism is seen as an impartial expectation of employees demonstrating their commitment to work, much research has documented how the reality of being at a desk for 10+ hours on a daily basis is more easily achieved by male workers with either no care responsibilities or with partners who manage such responsibilities for them. Contrastingly, female colleagues with children or those who want to have a family in the future must factor in the impact of motherhood on their careers, demonstrating that the ability to work long hours is not a neutral concept.
Recognition that motherhood can stall women’s advancement, while fatherhood may cause a mere dent in men’s progression, has pushed firms to establish a range of ‘flex’ options such as part-time work, daily flexi-time or temporary leave, to alleviate the impact of caring responsibilities on careers. Consequently, flexibility is associated primarily with women, as they are more likely to use ‘flex’ options.
However, research indicates that women’s engagement with flexibility has not enhanced opportunities for advancement. Instead, women are stigmatized for not being available 24/7 and are propelled onto the ‘mummy track’, a deceleration of their careers for not demonstrating a ‘work first’ attitude.
Has Covid-19 removed the stigma from flexible working, now that both men and women have experienced the personal and professional benefits of working from home? Are we on the cusp of the end of presenteeism and a rebranding of flexibility?
Numerous surveys of employees working in banks, insurance companies, law firms and accountancy organizations indicate that the majority of male and female employees across a range of age groups want to work more from home going forward.
As businesses across the capital and other cities are communicating the need for staff to return to offices on a voluntary basis, we must not allow ‘the office’ to re-emerge as the sole breeding ground of shared learning and new ideas, the fostering of new business and the maintenance of social relations within the firm. Such valorisation of ‘the office’ means working from home is not treated as a source of innovation and the rebranding of flexibility fades into the background. Such a loss, in addition to suggestions that those choosing to return to the office are more likely to be men while women continue to work from home to facilitate family responsibilities, may lead to the shift of the ‘mummy track’ out of the office into the home.
So, are we seeing in the call to ‘return to the office’, the reassertion of outdated ways and the fading of an opportunity to change how we manage the work and family dimensions of our lives? Such attitudes to careers may be difficult to dislodge but this does not mean they are unassailable. For many employees at all levels, particularly men, the Covid-induced home working is probably the first time they have seriously engaged in ‘office work’ outside the confines of the office. This experience and its ongoing impact on how we understand the place of work in our lives should not be underestimated.
The one thing Covid has achieved that all the HRM policies in the world have not accomplished to date is to demonstrate that flexible work arrangements are not just a ‘woman’ thing – they kept many businesses not only surviving but thriving as we grappled with this seismic event in our lives. The pandemic has provided us a new opportunity to challenge the long standing gender identities which put men and women on different paths in relation to work and family.
On the basis of our Covid experience, we can speak about new ways of working without being dismissed with the usual ‘that will never work for our business’ refrain. The conversation has started in earnest, let’s make sure we keep it going.
About the author
Patricia Lewis is Professor of Management and Head of the People, Management & Organisation Group at Kent Business School (University of Kent). Patricia has sought to make visible the ways in which organisations, leaders & entrepreneurs are subject to and constituted by gendered cultural norms and how such constitution contributes to inequality.
Are you looking to return to work after a career break? Searching for advice and tips? WeAreTheCity has a whole dedicated section to returnships and returning to work. You can find open returnship opportunities, advice for experts about returning to work and tips on flexible working.