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Remote work: The unlevel playing field

The stigma associated with flexible work has been turned on its head by COVID-19, with remote work becoming the norm rather than the exception in many organisations. But there are downsides to working from home, particularly for parents, and research shows that women are disproportionately affected.

Housework and childcare duties tend to fall to women who say it has a major impact on their ability to do their jobs properly and to progress in their careers. According to Gemma Dale, a human resources consultant and author of Flexible Working, there is “an unlevel playing field” now. We asked a UCT GSB course convenor, a UCT GSB alumnus and a current UCT GSB student the following question:

What can organisations do to support women so that they can progress in their careers in this new working environment?

SUE VON HIRSCHFELD, CO-CONVENOR OF THE DEVELOPING WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP EXECUTIVE EDUCATION COURSE AT THE UCT GSB.

Initially many women seemed to welcome remote working as they felt it might bring them some flexibility, some more availability to their families hence less anxiety, and of course less time commuting. However, as you point out here, this has dissipated… as women feel more pressure to be “always on” and available to meet work demands “24/7” , not to mention taking, in the main, the main share of domestic duties. What can organisations do? To put it simply, be aware, ask, and listen.

Be aware that remote working does not equal being available all the time, ask women how they are being affected, and when women do use their voices (either invited or not), listen. And whereas not all women (and men of course!), will work in time when needed to achieve targets, many do this, for example, at odd hours when needed, so trust that this will happen – measure output rather than hours in front of the computer, if at all possible. With extended school holidays, and/or children being home for some days in the school-week, women will massively value some flexibility in set working hours if the nature of their work allows this. Finally, women in the main, are excellent at creating and maintaining connection, so value and encourage women to bring this special quality into the team for the benefit of everyone.

BIANCA ROUSSEAU, UCT GSB PGDIP ALUMNA

Due to the deep socio-economic disparities within our South African landscape, it’s reasonable to expect a variety of challenges faced by women employed within the same department of a particular company. As their challenges vary, the most impactful solution to each individual woman may be out of reach for the employer. This does not mean that the employer should release all intention of empowering their women. It may simply mean that the employer could investigate “simple” interventions which would be valued by any member of staff, thereby offering them an opportunity to increase productivity and career trajectory within the business.

The organisation could offer weekly or monthly assistance by means of grocery home deliveries, access to online tutoring for children forced into home schooling, access to a mobile cleaning service, access to a mobile laundry service or access to a home meal delivery. Another option added could be something which looks after one’s mental health.

The employee could select the option best suited to her needs by using an online portal which allows every woman access to one item per week or month.

PRECIOUS SCHULTE TO BRINKE, UCT GSB MBA CANDIDATE AND 2021 WOMEN IN BUSINESS CONFERENCE COMMITTEE MEMBER

Mine is a different story, I started remote working in 2018 after my daughter was born. The company realised that I was more productive that way, after a rough night, I was able to sleep in, rest so that I could be more productive. I realise I am one of the lucky ones, my position and the nature of work I did allowed that flexibility. The company also extended this to other people in the company. Living in Johannesburg, it allowed my colleagues to shave off two hours sitting in traffic everyday. Everyone’s story is different.

From my experience, at the core of it, flexibility is what every primary caregiver needs and organisations need to focus on productivity rather than the amount of time one spends at their desk in the office. Organisations should formulate more inclusive policies, recognising the support women need, and this includes recognising that men have a role to play at home, so these policies should allow them to play that role so that they can hold the space and give women room to chase their careers.

Useful resources:
University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, Executive Education
Executive Education at the UCT Graduate School of Business is dedicated to growing the leadership backbone in organisations and individuals and inspiring a new generation of leaders to engage with the challenges of the African continent in a hyper-connected and globalised world.
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