In a piece first published in The Accountant Totum Founding Director Deborah Gray details the affect hybrid-working has had on women in professional services.

A pattern is emerging across the professional services industry, with the accounting sector no exception: women have been disproportionately negatively affected by hybrid working.

This was a striking reality echoed in the findings of Totum’s brand new Hybrid Working Report. With women already facing many enduring barriers in the workplace, it is crucial that employers look to rectify gendered issues around hybrid working and ensure that new work styles empower the entire workforce to thrive.

Back to the office

The last few months have seen a significant uptick in the number of workers flocking back to the office and with an increase in face-to-face meetings, this trajectory is predicted to continue. For many firms, the question is now how many days workers should be office-based.

Strikingly, Totum’s Hybrid Working Report indicated a significant difference in preference between male and female workers. In fact, while 77% of men preferred to work in the office two to three days a week, only 41% of women agreed. Instead, most female respondents favoured office working one to two days each week (58%).

However, the findings also revealed greater levels of concern among women around the potential knock-on effects of home working. Women overwhelmingly noted that ‘career progression’, ‘learning and development’, and ‘communicating with managers’ could be negatively impacted by remote work. Furthermore, almost three times as many women (35%) compared to men (12%) cited being ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as a negative consequence of hybrid working.

These findings betray a worrying potential trend: women may feel a need to forego their preferences and desire for increased flexibility to avoid creating barriers to their career progression. Managers should keep this in mind and be more attentive to employees working remotely to help alleviate these concerns and ensure that hybrid working is not an obstacle to gender equality in the workplace.

Remember me

Indeed, proximity bias is real. With favouring those around you a natural instinct for most, workplace divisions can arise between those choosing to return to the office and those working remotely. People in the office can often form tightly knight groups and remote workers may feel isolated from the rest of their team. In fact, 29% of women surveyed by Totum felt lonely and/or isolated at home, compared to just 12% of men, revealing an adverse gender imbalance in proximity bias. The repercussions of this can be felt in both the personal and professional lives of employees. With work making up a good portion of most people’s social interactions, a lack of socialising can be detrimental to mental health, increasing the chances of stress and burnout.

Therefore, it is vital that managers work to create an inclusive hybrid workplace, allowing for more hybrid co-working spaces and facilitating frequent communication between colleagues regardless of their location.

One CMI poll found that 29% of managers felt that promotion opportunities were lower for remote workers. Moreover, a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that two- thirds of managers felt remote working was detrimental to employees’ career objectives, suggesting that women’s concerns over career progression are completely valid.

As office-based workers are more likely to receive promotions, remote workers must work harder to be perceived by their managers as having done as much as their office-based counterparts. Not only does this exclude remote workers, but it further increases their chances of burnout, something that impacts women more than men. Indeed, 39% of women cited burnout as a negative consequence of working from home in Totum’s report, more than double the number of men (19%).

Simple things

It is key for managers to have the emotional intelligence to discuss the fallout of hybrid working across their teams – what works, and what does not. Simple things, such as having virtual meetings for the team if a member is working remotely and ensuring the availability of professional development and training programmes for remote workers, can help to ensure that those employees that do work from home are not suffering from proximity bias.

Hybrid working is still a new model, and to succeed it must be adapted to fit different working preferences and management styles. Women’s concerns must be addressed, otherwise we risk creating yet further barriers for them in the workplace – causing professional development to come at the cost of flexible working.

As we settle into our ‘new normal’, we should remember that this is a golden opportunity to start fresh and craft a new work style, celebrating diversity and championing inclusion.

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