“We like to filter new information through our own experiences to see if it computes. If it matches up with what we have experienced, it’s valid. If it doesn’t match up, it is not” says Ijeoma Oluo, one of my favourite authors in one of her books. But when it comes to diversity, inclusion and flexibility in the workplace there is no universal experience.
Recently, we have been hearing about the importance of going back to work and return-to-office plans, as well as the need for flexibility and new ways of working. However, although macro environment changes and the need to adapt quickly to new challenges have been a constant in the work of market researchers (especially in the last three years), we don’t hear as much about the strategies in place to facilitate the transition towards more flexible forms of work inclusive of people with different needs.
New Ways of Working: Are They Really Inclusive?
Remote and hybrid working have been lauded as innovative types of work for people to increase their work-life balance. And despite a significant number of businesses forced to embrace this type of work during the pandemic, not all organisations are open to continuing this practice or implementing new ways of working for different reasons; and remote doesn’t necessarily mean flexible in many companies.
Women, for instance, commonly face the challenge of negotiating work and care, regardless of whether they work from home or at an office. In fact, research has shown that women in the UK are three times more likely than their partners to have to take time off work to look at their children. These challenges, although widely recognised and addressed in public debates, still persist to the point of preventing women from achieving meaningful and sustainable progress in their careers.
People from diverse ethnic backgrounds and ability levels have also different experiences in this area. Black, Asian, mixed-race and other racially diverse workers are significantly more likely to quit their jobs because the lack of flexibility in their workplaces, as conflicts might arise between low paid work and caring responsibilities.
Underrepresentation and downsizing are also examples of how ethnically diverse workers are more likely to be affected by fixed office policies. Although more companies recognise the importance of a diverse and inclusive workplace, in reality employees from non-white ethnic backgrounds usually have little choice as to how, when and where they can work. For people from these backgrounds, face-to-face work could also be a disadvantage, as in many cases the right to live and stay in a specific country is tied to the sponsorship provided by their employers; but at the same time, candidates from ethnically diverse backgrounds who need sponsorship could find it harder to be hired by companies due to visa-related constraints.
Traditional approaches of work have also proved to be unfit when it comes to neurodivergent people and people with different levels of ability. Many struggle to adapt to the inherent requirements of the traditional 9 to 5 in-person jobs, and as an unfortunate result, they end up being forced to adapt, are discriminated against or even completely excluded from the workforce.
All these examples highlight the need to implement flexible working policies, or at least evaluate the feasibility of implementing them, taking the specific needs of employees as the starting point. This then opens up an entirely new challenge: how could we foster inclusion in flexible workspaces?
Inclusion Starts with Flexible Working
Despite the terrible circumstances and horrifying consequences, the COVID-19 pandemic also manage to turn the world of working on its head for the better. It has forced companies to completely rethink their policies, mindsets and strategies, and embrace remote working — and through the lack of commutes, the increased online connectivity and increased home productivity, it’s clear there is a desire for increased flexible working in order to maintain a good work-life balance. However, this isn’t the only positive from the introduction of remote and flexible working. Flexible working has altered the recruitment landscape and allowed previously regional and local businesses to recruit staff on a national scale, reaching more people from all backgrounds more than ever before.
Laying the groundwork for remote working has increased online connectivity and eradicated many obstacles that were previously in the way for fully remote working. Since the benefits of flexible working have dominated most industries, governments across the world have jumped on the bandwagon to promote the benefits of home working and flexible working, but while they are saying what everyone wants to hear, they’re pushing through policies to limit the amount of home working possible. This disconnect between their communications and actions are telling an entirely different story and are forcing people back into the office to the detriment of inclusivity and diversity.
It is said that current UK legislation, for example, is stuck in the past, and has been widely criticised for doing the bare minimum to “look like they’ve filled their manifesto pledge”, and the only legal amendment we can expect so far is the amendment to move the right to request flexible working to day one of employment. These actions only serve to reinforce a sense of fear in employees around the request process and does nothing at this point to encourage employers to take their staff up on those requests. With the fear still prevalent in many industries and no policies being put in place to support staff in their pursuit of flexible working, any progress we have made through the pandemic will falter and the wheels of progress might even start to turn backwards.
Flexible working benefits many different workers in our economy, but especially parents, those employees with roots in different cultures as mentioned earlier, and neuro-diverse employees, who will all find it easier, more beneficial and productive to work from home. They are able to build their own workspaces to accommodate their needs, design their structure and days in the pursuit of productivity and are able to connect with others on their own terms. These benefits are just the baseline for how flexible and home working policies promotes inclusivity, it allows employees to approach work in their own way and work for their company in ways that benefit both parties. Employers who facilitate flexible working opportunities such as this stand to gain a lot more from their work force than if they stick to the traditional 9–5, fully office-based policies, forcing people into one place for the sake of corporate comfort.
Fostering Inclusion in Market Research
Flexible working has become more than a trend in many industries, it’s become a necessity for many people. When implemented right, it can help foster a better work-life balance and increase productivity in all aspects of life. Inclusion is just as much of a necessity as flexible working, especially in the insights industry, to eradicate outdated bias, bring us closer to achieving true equality, and much more. However, inclusion brings more benefits to market research practices than most people realise — for example, how are insight experts meant to seek national representation in relevant research projects and make sure all voices are heard if the organisation and industry we work in are inherently biased?
So here are three ways we can foster inclusion in the insights industry and beyond:
- Instead of one-size-fits-all approaches to flexible work, be open to hear employees’ specific needs. Sometimes, what works best for us might not work the same for someone else.
- Establish functional lines of communication and information sharing. This will allow people in your organisation to have clear ideas about what needs to be done, as well as the expectations around their performance
- Be open to feedback and proactive in the implementation of suggested changes. Whether it is related to a disability or a personal circumstance, disclosing a specific need for flexible working can be difficult itself, so make your colleague or employee feel validated and communicate which actions, if any, will be taken to address their request.
In our post-pandemic reality, we’ve seen how many companies continue to have options in place for employees to work remotely, hybrid or from home; but these options might still not fully adapt to many people’s circumstances. Thus, a truly inclusive workplace would need to take into account those people’s voices and experiences.
This article was originally published on the FlexMR Insights Blog and can be accessed here.