If ad land wants a diverse, productive workforce it must start taking WFH seriously

Working from home works because it levels the playing field, but practically it also gives women more flexibility

Among the many unsolicited 'how to work from home' guides for employees, Erminia Blackden, strategy director at Engine offers some advice to employers in the ad industry: if you want a diverse, equal and productive workforce then it's time to start taking remote working seriously.

Life in lockdown has been a difficult time for everyone.

Women working from home have found it harder than most as they are still more likely than men to be responsible for childcare and household chores. It’s been a testing time. The latest data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies reveals women are 9% less likely to be in paid work than men, and doing at least two hours more household work each day.

As lockdown begins to lift and offices reopen, the temptation to go back to work might be greater than the benefits for many women. We might not want to admit it, but living in lockdown may just have taught us a thing or two.

For women who can work from home, one of the biggest learnings might be the opportunities that present themselves when employees show presenteeism the door. As children start to go back to school and nursery, and those lucky enough to be able to afford a cleaner can at least share that job with someone else, working remotely can start to look quite appealing.

According to the annual Labour Force Survey remote working has been on the rise for some time, and those most likely to be participating in the trend are women.

Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute believes that women often thrive when working from home because the elephant of unconscious bias is, literally, no longer in the room.

Working remotely can help to remove judgments around what you wear, what social class you are really from, whether you have a disability, are underweight or overweight, and even how tall you are. (Yes, that’s a thing). In a study reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology researchers found that every additional inch in height could be worth £650 a year. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) the average height difference between a man and a woman in the UK is six inches – you won’t need a calculator to work out who is losing out.

Working from home works because it levels the playing field, but practically it also gives women more flexibility to fit work around their other responsibilities should they choose to do so.

Less time spent ‘getting ready for work’, travelling and less stress leads to greater productivity and better performance.

The benefits of a work at home option for employees are sizeable. Remote workers are 87% more likely to say that they love their jobs and it’s not hard to see why. A 2019 report on the state of remote working reveals that those who work from home report lower stress, and higher job satisfaction as well as a greater chance of being promoted. Remote workers are also on average 38% more likely to be promoted than their office-based counterparts. This figure rises to 63% among women.

The argument isn’t just one-sided, however. There are sizeable benefits for employers too.

Studies have shown that working from home has a documented 1% reduction in productivity, which is a small price to pay when balanced out with benefits such as having access to the widest possible talent pool, reduction in fixed costs and overheads, the potential to run 24-hour teams and the potential for a more diverse workforce, which we know drives profitability.

It's also not only productivity that gets a boost from remote working, it’s the quality of the endeavour too. In 2016, Dr Kira Rupietta and Professor Michael Beckman found that working from home has a positive impact on an employee’s work effort, and that the more frequently an individual engages in the practice, the higher their work effort becomes. It’s no wonder, then, that Gartner’s 2020 CFO Survey revealed that post-pandemic 74% intend to shift some employees to remote work permanently.

It’s true that working remotely isn’t going to be possible or desirable for all employees all of the time. But in the past three months in the UK, we’ve gone from just under 2 million to over 20 million people working from home and a considerable percentage of those quite like the arrangement.

Under the current Employment Rights Act employees have the right to request permission to work flexibly for any reason, but there are strong indicators from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy that there might be a change to the law making the option to work from home less of a privilege and more of a right. Whether or when this happens employers need to be ready to embrace the change and the benefits.

Here are some tips for ad agencies and brands to manage the transition and avoid some of the pitfalls:

  1. Remote working isn’t for everyone, choice is a key part of the equation. Extroverts work better around people, and organisations need extroverts as well as introverts to thrive.

  2. Staying away poses a challenge for staying connected. Strategies need to be put in place to ensure that both physically, mentally and emotionally employees feel part of a team and are able to contribute the that team’s culture.

  3. You will need to develop new strategies to nurture young talent who won’t always have the maturity and skill to work independently or enjoy the experience.

  4. Clear objectives, reporting lines, and ‘safe spaces’ to voice concerns are more important than ever as more working remotely puts more pressure on the individual to understand and manage their tasks and working relationships.

Erminia Blackden is strategy director at Engine.

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