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I’m applauding the phenomenal response of the HR community to the current pandemic; but at the same time I have grave concerns about the ‘new normal’ to which we may be heading.

For many employees the past few weeks have been an experience of ‘one step forward, two steps back’. The remote working that employers had been so firmly resisting suddenly became not only possible but essential. Commentators are suggesting there will be no retreat. Post pandemic employees will expect to continue working flexibly. One step forward.

But the pandemic also shone a spotlight on the considerable burden of unpaid care carried by many women. An invisible load that continues to be ignored in much of the current advice being offered for remote working. For your female workforce it’s two steps back. Is it any wonder that even before the chaos started research was showing working mothers holding themselves back from promotion due to concerns about their work-life balance?

The good news is that when this is all over the HR profession will come out well. Support for employee wellbeing, a focus on business continuity and the speedy navigation of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme have all been exemplary. The springboard is there for HR to make a greater impact and create world class 21st century organisations. Or we can take another two steps back.

Accepting that until now our approach has been gender blind, disadvantaging women and contributing to the gender pay gap, is key. Take, for instance, our current focus on ‘agile’ working. It’s fine to allow (or is it expect) people to work any time any where if work is their sole priority and  someone in the background is taking care of the rest of life. Two decades into the 21st century the reality in most families is that it’s still women who invariably compromise their careers to take on the mental load of caring. In the face of inflexible corporate cultures they have little choice.

As we start planning our emergence from lockdown, and begin rethinking processes HR is well placed to build on its good work in supporting wellbeing and business continuity. The following steps will move the agenda forward:

  1. Start by introducing a written Work Life Balance policy explicitly supported by those at senior levels. Inevitably these are likely to be men with little understanding of the constant juggle faced by women. Now’s the time to educate them on the business benefits of a gender balanced workforce. (And if you’ve any doubts about what those are you’ll find compelling evidence in the book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez).

    Having a policy normalises conversations around work life balance needs; and helps people understand how important that balance is to both physical and mental wellbeing. Recent research has shown less than half of employers have a work life balance policy in place.

  2. Provide clear guidelines for employees on how to manage the technologies that keep us all connected to work 24/7; and specifically how to disconnect. Again, research has shown that almost 60% of workplaces currently have no guidelines. Why is this important? Put simply: because further research has shown that working mothers (in particular) are at risk of burnout as they navigate poorly defined expectations. Efforts to juggle both work and family demands result in a ‘triple shift’ of work/childcare/work that compromises their wellbeing.

  3. Focus on creating ‘human sized’ jobs. This goes beyond a policy of ‘all roles flex’ and is something the charity Working Families has been campaigning for. Recognise that many jobs – even at senior levels – can be worked on less than full time hours. That might mean job-share or a reduced workload arrangement to cover three or four days.

    As AI increasingly takes over the routine aspects of work the human side of jobs will be a focus on things we do best: the creative and the interpersonal bits. These are not necessarily needed ‘full-time’. Indeed, for employers under pressure to reduce staff numbers this is an ideal way of retaining a wider pool of skills and talent; ready for the upturn.

  4. Move performance management processes to an outputs focus. Where and when the work is done becomes less relevant. Attention shifts to making best use of skills rather than simply filling countless hours with pointless meetings and emails.

  5. Encourage (and train) managers to coach rather than control. As Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson (developers of the Results Only Work Environment model) point out: in this type of working arrangement the manager’s role is one of coaching subordinates to achieve desired outputs; rather than controlling the way in which those outputs are reached.

By supporting balanced working HR will be helping employers step into an improved ‘new normal’ prepared to make the best of an uncertain future.

Anna Meller, Work Re-Balance Expert at Sustainable Working Ltd

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