The Female Quotient
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Kevin Delaney is the co-founder and CEO of Charter, a media and services company that looks at how we are going to transform work in the future. “A lot of people thought they were going back to their office, thought their kids were going back to school and we’re seeing that’s pretty far from the experience. Childcare has not come back, 1400 schools have closed, companies have delayed returns with the recent surge. Microsoft has said they had given up setting a date on the return to the office.” 

People are feeling let down. They had imagined what it was like to return to the workplace and see their colleagues again, to have their children settled at daycare and school with reliable schedules, and that’s just not happening. Things that were fundamentally broken before the pandemic have not magically fixed themselves during the last year and a half. It’s up to leaders to seize this opportunity right now and reset old practices to be more fair and dynamic, and to better reflect the nature of work we do today and not how it was done 75 years ago. 

To get a pulse on the return/pause/return pace we’re currently experiencing, The Female Quotient hosted a one-day summit, The Great Returnship: Creating the New Workplace to hear from executives and leaders across industries. Here are some takeaways on the future of work.  

The Modern Workplace is Not Modern

Joanne Lipman, a university lecturer at Yale and former editor in chief of USA Today set the big picture. “The modern workplace was created after WWII. It’s a military model, hierarchical, nine to five, rigid structure. Everything about the way we work has changed. Back then, we were a manufacturing economy and tethered to a five-day workweek of 40 hours or more. Covid gave us the opportunity to blow that up.”

Delaney explained that on a manufacturing line you’re judged by the time you’re there and how fast you’re working. We know now that our most productive times are not necessarily when we’re in the office. As a lot of organizations shift to hybrid, the most productive thing you can do in the office is to interact with other people. Having coffee with people and chatting in the kitchen by the watercooler are productive uses of time. Small talk sows the seeds of work relationships. “The last thing you want is a worker to go over to their computer and put their head down.”

The 40-hour workweek doesn’t cut it on many levels because work spills over and it doesn’t align with people’s lifestyles. It has excluded a lot of amazing talent from the workforce because they’re unable to adhere to this schedule due to caregiving, where they live and other responsibilities. 

“Covid exposed deep systemic issues that were never addressed before. We need flexibility. Bureau of Labor statistics have shown ‘quits’ are at a record high,” shared Lipman. “People don’t only want to leave their jobs, they’re looking at switching occupations altogether. There is deep unhappiness with how the office is structured.”

The Evolution of Benefits

“In a tight labor market, employees have more power. How many jobs are open now? You see ‘Help Wanted’ signs everywhere. Workers are looking for different kinds of benefits,” said Lipman. 

Before it was the free food, dry cleaning, arcades and ice cream parlors on campus, but all of those benefits kept employees at the office working longer hours. Today, the benefits employees seek help them balance their lives, such as mental health benefits. We need to normalize childcare and eldercare, but not leave out people who don’t have children. Holistically, it needs to translate into personal life benefits for all employees.  

Hybrid Work and Proximity Bias

Remote work should not be elective because it creates bias barriers. If every employee has the same hybrid schedule, with two days at home and three days at the office, it provides the same equity opportunity. It’s what my girlfriend Eve Rodsky has coined “predictable flexibility.” Otherwise those who work remote will not be afforded the same opportunities as those on-site.

“People who are closer to us and things that are more familiar are more favorable to us,” Delaney said, explaining what proximity bias entails. “As you start to have people go back to the office, the employees that managers see more often because they’re on the same schedule...those are the people more likely to get raises or plum assignments that ultimately matter in a career.”

Organizations already have fundamental issues around inclusion. Hybrid work is great for productivity and happiness, but how do we overcome this proximity bias? “Organizations need to get their head around it. Talk about it and educate people about it. Have employees come into the office on the same days. Over time, measure the rates of promotion, retention and raises for workers in different groups,” Delaney suggested.

The Future of Work

“Technologies that were on our road map rapidly accelerated when Covid hit,” said Karen Hardy, vice president of global partnerships at Avaya, a company that specializes in cloud communications and workstream collaboration solutions. Who would’ve thought noise-cancelling technology for video calls would be a need before Covid?

With dogs barking, lawnmowers buzzing and people typing/texting during calls, today it is. Leveraging AI (artificial intelligence) technology, Avaya is solving for this in addition to bringing facial and voice recognition to the forefront for front line workers to ensure customer data remains secure. 

For Loretta Li-Sevilla, head of future of work collaboration and business incubation at HP, collaboration is essential. “Previously, when you would remotely join an in-person meeting, you would feel like you’re not contributing like everyone else. If we fast forward to hybrid work, we’ll never be in a situation where everyone is going to be able to be in the room at the same time. The office is being redesigned for building a sense of community, wherever you are.”

Upskilling and reskilling are the next logical steps, according to Stacy Janiak, chief growth officer for Deloitte US. “The World Economic Forum wants to reskill a billion people by 2030, and the pandemic only sped up this need for digital transformation.” Janiak shared that a lot of people at Deloitte who help her and her colleagues operate a virtual environment have jobs that didn’t exist pre-pandemic.

When asked if jobs will be replaced by AI, Li-Sevilla said that while repetitive tasks can be replaced by automation, knowledge-based types of roles that focus more on soft skills and problem solving will continue to evolve and grow. 

There is a silver lining — automation will allow us to replace basic workplace needs and we can start hiring talent for their EQ (emotional intelligence). That’s the upskilling of human nature that we really need. It will be equitable. It will be an opportunity for us to thrive. In the short-term we have resolved to be a more resilient, more dynamic and fairer workplace.

This article was originally published on Forbes.com.

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