Is corporate’s push to be back in office harming women?

Is corporate’s push to be back in the office harming women?

return to office

Linking office attendance to salary reviews, bonuses and promotions severely disadvantages anyone with caring responsibilities and an inability to get to work easily — ie. women and remote workers — and must be carefully examined, experts say.

Yet reports that some large companies are considering doing just that have begun circulating as employers fight to bring people back on site for at least 50 percent of the time.

Late last year, an internal memo to ANZ staff, shared by The Aussie Corporate Instagram page, showed the bank cracking down on staff who worked from home more than half the time.

It warned that if employees didn’t “meet the standards expected [of 50 per cent attendance], it may factor into your performance rating and PRR [Performance and Remuneration Review] outcomes at the end of the FY24 year.”

More recently, PwC’s UK boss warned that young workers who don’t come into office at least four times a week will be replaced with artificial intelligence.

The threat to link on-site work to performance, the pay packet — and even to keeping one’s job — is a sign that post Covid 19 lockdowns, both employers and employees are struggling to find the right balance between working on-site and remotely.

“There is no one simple answer to this,” says Dr Fiona Macdonald, policy director at the industrial and social department at the Centre for Future Work.

“While some employees are happy to go into the office a few days a week, in some places people don’t want to be in the office at all. It’s pretty problematic for organisations in how they manage that.”

While many organisations continue to include flexible work policies following the pandemic years of 2020 to 2022, the creep of presenteeism and messages that those working from home may suffer from being “out of sight and out of mind”, as well as being seen as less productive, are intensifying in some sectors.

“We have organisations which are overwhelmingly staffed by men, and while I don’t think most men consciously think they don’t want women in their workplace, there is definitely less understanding about people’s life circumstances if you don’t have diversity,” says Macdonald.

And while for many the model to return to working how we used to — 9 to 5, on-site — seems easier to implement, experts believe companies need to move beyond that and try harder to offer flexibility.

“It’s well past the time where we’re thinking workplaces need to be based on male models of working in the 1970s,” Macdonald says, but points out that many workplaces have not been structured around hybrid and flexible work.

“Managers haven’t been training to think about it,” she adds. “It takes effort to figure out how to organise staff who are working remotely some of the time, and what is the best way to get them to come together and work well as a team.”

The problem is that the “cat’s out of the bag” when it comes to hybrid working, with people now expecting some degree of leniency from their bosses. For many women, the flex work policies implemented during Covid were a godsend, and enabled a much more reasonable work-life balance.

Demanding that staff return to work physically will disproportionately impact those with caring responsibilities (usually women), says Sarah McCann-Bartlett, CEO at Australian HR Institute.

“Rigid office attendance requirements might inadvertently create barriers to workplace participation for those with caring responsibilities, who we know are more likely to be women.”

Families and home life have always adapted to organisations, points out Macdonald: maybe it’s time that organisations adapt a little to life. Men also need to get on board and fight for the right to hybrid work.

“If we want more men to do more caring, men need to be demanding these changes too,” she says. “Unfortunately change comes slowly: it’s two steps forward, one step back”. 

Fortunately, some data suggests the situation is not quite so gloomy. McCann-Bartlett points to AHRI’s most recent survey, which, after talking to 452 employers, found that while more employers are specifying how many days a week employees should work on-site, most (that can) are maintaining a hybrid work model.

“Very few employers are requiring employees to return to the physical workplace five days a week,” says Sarah McCann-Bartlett, CEO at Australian HR Institute. “AHRI’s research shows that in 2023, only 7 per cent of employers required full time employees to attend physically all five days”.

The research also found that nearly all (97 per cent) of organisations offered some form of flexible working arrangement aside from hybrid working, such as  part-time work (85 per cent); flexi time (53 per cent); compressed hours or compressed working weeks (45 per cent); and career breaks (44 per cent).

Senior lecturer in work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney Business School, Dr Meraiah Foley, believes organisations are “finding themselves in a pickle trying to work out what is the right balance between having people physically present to build culture, foster innovation and help train new graduates, and allowing the kind of flexibility people have become used to”.

“People like working remotely and having autonomy and flexibility, and in many instances, people aren’t returning to their workplace to the extent organisations would like them to,” she tells Women’s Agenda.

Seemingly every week, cases about “battles” between employees and employers fighting for balance are aired in public, including a sales rep being awarded $26,000 in compensation after being fired by his employer over “lack of commitment” for working from home on compulsory on-site days; a scientist failing to get his job back following the sack for secretly working overseas; and Fair Work upholding that a remote working lawyer was unfairly fired for trawling music, books, comic and PlayStation websites while on the clock.

Foley says any organisations that plan to dock pay based on office attendance are extremely problematic, and a return to the “idea that productivity is time spent in the office… and not based on outputs and outcomes”.

“It’s also extremely problematic from a gender equality perspective, as it’s just going to reward people who don’t have caring responsibilities or who have the capacity to work long hours,” she adds.


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