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Op-Ed: Push to return to work may harm gender equality & diversity

In the shadow of the pandemic, the global workforce underwent a profound transformation. 

The forced experiment of remote work, initially perceived as a short-term adjustment, soon revealed its potential to recalibrate the professional and business landscape, particularly around diversity and inclusion. However, as businesses globally rally to usher employees back into office spaces, there’s an increased need to analyse the potential long-term impacts of a reverse transition, especially on the progress we’ve made towards creating a more inclusive workspace.

Remote Work: Democratising Opportunities

Remote work has truly democratised employment, especially for women. Surveys indicate that women, more than men, prefer working remotely or in a hybrid manner by about 10%. The reasons are multifaceted. Primarily, it affords better work-life balance, allowing women, who often bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities, to more effectively manage their families’ activities. The financial and time savings from reduced or zero commute further support this preference.

Data, too, is testament to this change. The November 2022 LinkedIn Self-ID data illuminated a telling trend: the percentage of women applying for remote jobs had surged by an impressive 20% year on year.

Beyond Gender: The Business Case for Diversity

While the benefits to women are clear, the broader implications for businesses should not be underestimated. A rich tapestry of diverse thoughts fuels innovation and drives financial growth. In fact, numerous studies consistently highlight the tangible financial advantages of diverse teams. Disrupting this progress by a hasty return to the office is not just a socio-cultural setback; it’s a potential business misstep.

Exploring the Real Potential of Remote Work

While the modern work landscape was rocked by the pandemic, some might argue it forced a necessary shakeup. Industries that had long resisted the shift to remote work were forced to adapt. This adaptation was more than just a change in scenery from an office to a home setup. It was a revelation of how work could be done effectively and inclusively.

Many industries saw an influx of talent that had previously been untapped due to geographical limitations. Firms like Amazon, among others, expanded their horizons, targeting recruits outside of conventional office catchment areas. The pandemic-induced remote work model signalled that businesses could think globally, and there was an entire world of talent to explore. A forced and complete return to the traditional office model, risks severing these effective connections.

Perhaps more importantly, for women and minority groups, the remote work model was more than just convenience; it was empowerment. 

Historically marginalised groups found their voices in the remote work ecosystem. For instance, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women, who had faced barriers in traditional office environments, now had a platform to showcase their skills and contribute meaningfully without facing the same hurdles. The reduction in commute times allowed for better work-life balance, more time with family, and more time to focus on the work. And those that were previously unable to get to an office, or struggled in the traditional office environment were enabled to prosper in their roles working remotely. 

Reconsidering the Rush

The urge to return to the ‘known normal’ could sideline these gains. Businesses, in an effort to maximise efficiency and return to pre-pandemic productivity levels, might overlook the incredible strides made in terms of diversity and inclusivity. And it has to be recognised that not all businesses would experience increased productivity returning to the old workspace model. If there’s one thing that we’ve all learnt during the upheaval, there is no one size fits all. 

Another important question beckons: Are businesses prepared to lose the talent they’ve garnered during these times? If remote work is becoming a significant determinant of job satisfaction and engagement, as studies suggest, then isn’t the wholesale move back to the office a step in the wrong direction?

The Way Forward

Decision-makers need to look beyond just operational efficiency. They need to gauge the long-term implications of their choices. It’s not about resisting the return to the office but about embracing a model that upholds the gains of the past few years. Hybrid models, flexible work hours, and results-oriented performance metrics could be the key. 

The voices in the decision-making rooms should echo the diversity that works for their talent. Leaders, managers, and employees — all have a stake in the future of work. As the transition from a pandemic-defined work model takes shape, businesses must ensure they’re not simply reacting but thoughtfully crafting a future that truly embodies diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In essence, as we navigate the post-pandemic work landscape, the choices we make today will define the inclusivity and diversity of our professional world tomorrow. This should be a time of continued learning and experimentation while we have the agility to do it. Companies must tread with caution, ensuring they don’t sideline the very groups that have, against all odds, begun to find their footing in the professional world.

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Lauren Karan

Lauren Karan

Lauren Karan is the CEO of Karan & Co, a recruitment agency widely respected for its human and personalised approach. With over 12 years of experience in technical and engineering recruitment and a background in psychology, Lauren is a certified organisational coach with expertise in behavioural interviewing and psychometric testing. She is experienced in market mapping, strategy sourcing, and excels at building strong client relationships. Lauren's dedication to fostering a nurturing work environment reflects in her team at Karan & Co, and through her podcast "Building Doors", she empowers professionals to unlock the full scope of their potential. A forward-thinking and dynamic leader, Lauren Karan's personable approach and commitment to quality recruitment services have guaranteed her place as a trusted name in the industry.

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