A 4 minute read on why the return to office work cannot mean a return to old working life

Talent Retention and Flexible working

It’s looking increasingly certain that July 19th will be the date the government lifts covid restrictions and we’re cleared to return to the office. But what does that mean, in practice, for the female lawyers who’ve spent the past 15 months juggling childcare/ homeschooling and working from home?

Many law firms are announcing flexible working policies, going forward, with several high profile firms already offering 40% to 50% working from home options, with less for trainees. But not all companies are as forward-thinking. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon described remote working as an “aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible,” and clients have told me about similar rumblings from bosses.

You might think it would be easier for women to return to the previous status quo because the statistics show they’ve been disproportionately and adversely affected by the pandemic in comparison to men. In the US 2.2 million women have dropped out of the labour market altogether and survey from June 2020 found that 12.7% of mothers were not working due to Covid-related childcare issues, compared to only 2.8% of men. Meanwhile, in the UK, women took on 78% more childcare than men during the first lockdown and 67% of women compared with 52% of men were taking charge of home schooling (source: ONS).

But scientists predict covid will be with us for a long time. And the pandemic has just exposed in greater detail how inextricably linked to childcare provisions in schools is the success of the working lives/ careers/ businesses of working mothers – and, as a consequence, the economy as a whole.

That’s why HR leaders serious about talent retention among women in law and other professions, should be pressing for flexible working to be the new norm across the board. If not, we can expect a stagnation or regression in women’s career progression, as they are forced to give up jobs entirely, or dramatically reduce working hours, to better balance working from home with the demands of childcare and home schooling.

We already have numerous examples of how we’re already well on the way to making this work:

Thank goodness for Zoom

I spend a lot of my time delivering keynote speeches, seminars and workshops, as well as one-to-one coaching for women in law, and expected my diary to rapidly clear when live events were cancelled March 2020. But I was surprised at the speed in which we all transitioned seamlessly to online webinars and an increased use of, and trust and confidence in, Zoom coaching. One hugely positive knock-on effect of the pandemic is the preference of many to avoid unnecessary travel time to facilitate meetings, which in turn has more readily opened up an entirely new, and global, market for international coaching.

Home works!

I am in awe of the speed with which companies, when push came to shove, successfully transitioned to home working, with fully functioning technological support and infrastructures put in place. The organisations made the kind of progress about which women campaigning for flexible/ remote/ home-based working could only have dreamed. Even the old school traditionalist firms in law and finance simply had to adapt, transition and grow – or quite literally die.

Children can be seen

The lockdown has brought a far more tolerant approach towards work interruptions due to the demands of childcare. A recognition, finally, that we are human beings and not automatons, and that we have lives beyond our working noses. I can’t tell you how much difference that’s made to the confidence of clients who are career break returners, including those on maternity leave.

We can train online, too

David Solomon’s objection to home workers appears to be based upon the premise that in his bank’s “apprentice” culture, incoming trainees would be without direct mentorship. But I have successfully coached and mentored remotely/ online, internationally, long before this pandemic year. Twenty-somethings are particularly at ease with online communications.

So, when the likes of Solomon make the irresponsible and regressive claim that working from home is an aberration, let’s remind him and his old-school, pale, male, stale cronies that this massive upheaval in our working lives has inspired people, especially women, to challenge cultural and societal norms – and they will! A hybrid mix of office life and working from home empowers rather than disempowers workforces. It also makes the workplace accessible to a more diverse range of workers. What’s more, we know homeworking works because we have the lived experience.

I get that not everyone wants to work from home. I understand that many people are missing that special something that one can only tap into from the uniqueness of office life. But to reject working from home out of hand suggests that nothing has been learnt from the pandemic and demonstrates an entirely fixed and immovable position which has the potential to directly discriminate against caregivers.

Consequently, organisations will lose people to more forward-thinking, adaptable competitors. Droves of talented females will vote with their feet, plunging businesses, particularly in financial services – where women make up just 16% of leadership positions in this industry to date, despite a whole raft of diversity targets and initiatives – into an ever-deepening retention crisis.

I’ve encouraged my HR clients to set up working groups to look at what experiences from the last 12 months can be taken forward into ‘business as usual’, and many are talking about adopting a lot more flexibility. It’s a shame that not all organisations see it this way, as businesses will surely lose talented people if not.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day was “#Choose to Challenge beyond International Women’s Day” to help forge a gender equal world and raise awareness against bias. Let’s take inspiration from that and get commitments from firms and organisations that they won’t just support a hybrid working model to allow people to work more flexibly, but that they will also actively support and promote the return of women to the workplace, wherever, physically, that may be.

Companies across the board need to accept that women are incredibly valuable, and it would benefit them to have women who care in their employ – “despite” them only being there part time, or working from home most of the time.

6 Strategies for Promoting Gender Diversity and Inclusion Post-Pandemic

Great ways that HR teams, those responsible for learning and development, and the law profession itself, can promote diversity and inclusion, include:

  • Assurances that the QC Application Panel won’t discriminate against women with pandemic gaps in their CV.
  • Coaching to build confidence; mentoring to upskill or more quickly put women back on a level playing field to the one they might have left pre-pandemic; and sponsoring their return to actively promoting their talents within the workplace and beyond.
  • Promotions based on output not input to ensure equity.
  • The avoidance of lazy assumptions around the perceived negative impact of care-giving on someone’s ability to successfully perform at work.
  • Extending paid parental leave, to avoid the need to take unpaid leave or use holiday entitlements to accommodate any future demands of home schooling.
  • Highlighting senior role-models – both women AND men – who have trodden a similar path before and made successes of flexible working or extended parental leave. 

As we begin to emerge from a global pandemic that has in many ways robbed so many of choice, both at home and at work, let’s use this opportunity to Choose to Challenge what has gone before, and by doing so, influence equality outcomes for the better.

 

 

Nikki Alderson Biography

Nikki Alderson has 19 years’ experience at the Criminal Bar in Yorkshire, working from Broadway House Chambers, Bradford & Leeds. Nikki now works as a specialist Coach, Speaker and Author:

  • Supporting organisations, in particular law firms & barristers’ Chambers, to retain female talent; &
  • empowering professionals, in particular female lawyers, to achieve career ambitions.

Nikki specialises in 3 areas:

  • Women’s Leadership Transition & Change;
  • Enhanced Career break returner support; &
  • Workplace resilience, confidence & wellness.

Although Nikki’s work focuses predominantly on one to one coaching within the workplace, she also delivers motivational keynote speeches & bespoke seminars, workshops and webinars on a variety of topics, such as Wellbeing, The Importance of Career Strategy, Breaking the Barriers to being your Best at the Bar/ on the Bench & Increasing Personal Performance at Work for a Long & Happy Life in Law. Learn more about her services here: www.nikkialdersoncoaching.com

She is the author of Amazon No.1 Bestseller Raising the Bar: empowering female lawyers through coaching , (https://amzn.to/3fodKQX) nominee for the Inspirational Women Awards, Champion of the Year Category & finalist in the 2020 Women in Law Awards, Legal Services Innovator of the Year & 2019 International Coaching Awards, International Coach of the Year Categories.