Woman working on laptop in kitchen
Work-life balance: workers and employers are still testing the boundaries for optimum performance © Getty Images

Janine Chamberlin’s return from maternity leave to her job as UK country manager at LinkedIn in February was very different to her experience after her son was born 13 years ago. 

Her new flexible, hybrid work schedule — spending some time in the office and doing some work remotely — means “I can spend time with my daughter before I get to the office,” she says, while her partner picks up the childcare later. But her son was born before working from home became an established norm amid the pandemic, so it was “much harder to set boundaries that worked for me”.

Companies had been experimenting with flexible arrangements before Covid hit in 2020. However, it was the drastic action required by national lockdowns that changed attitudes. For many employers, as well as employees, it was a chance to reset the model for both workplace and hours. Data collected by Gallup last year showed 46 per cent of women worked fully or partly remotely, compared with 40 per cent of men.

All workers stand to benefit from greater flexibility, less commuting and more time for commitments outside work, but the effects — good or bad — appear to be more pronounced for female workers.

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Hybrid working allows opportunities to work around childcare commitments, which statistics show still fall disproportionately to women. Research in 2021 by Catalyst, a non-profit consultancy that supports better workplaces for women, found that remote working reduced burnout — physical and psychological exhaustion — by 26 per cent. “While burnout affects people of all genders, races, and ethnicities, women report more workplace burnout than men,” the research says.

Working remotely can also exacerbate negative experiences, though — such as being overlooked at work and overburdened at home.

Janine Chamberlin, UK country manager at LinkedIn

About 40 per cent of women surveyed by Deloitte for its 2023 Women at Work report said they had been excluded from meetings, decisions and informal interactions when working in a hybrid way. About 30 per cent said they had less exposure to senior leaders. However, both of these figures were lower than a year earlier, suggesting managers and employers are navigating the challenges that have emerged.

For many women, giving up the flexibility is not an option. Around a quarter in the Deloitte survey said they would ask for reduced hours if their employer mandated working in the office, while about 10 per cent said they would seek another job.

So, as hybrid working becomes more normalised, managers and employees are taking steps to make the most of it, and avoid the pitfalls.

Relationships and communication

Despite tech tools that enable remote communication, one of the costs of hybrid working is the difficulty in collaborating, which women are traditionally good at, notes Naomi Shragai, business psychotherapist and author of the book Work Therapy: Or The Man Who Mistook His Job For His Life.

To remedy that, she advises making an effort to meet and work with colleagues on certain days in the workplace: “Be intentional about cultivating relationships and do not leave it to chance encounters.”

Karyn Twaronite, global head of diversity, equity and inclusiveness at EY, the professional services firm, emphasises “predictable flexibility”. For employees, this typically means going to the office on the same days each week; for managers, it means using those days to bring the team together physically. The result is accountability, collaboration — and flexibility.

Predictability will be appreciated by colleagues and managers. So, rather than cancel a meeting at short notice to do the school run, for example, communicate all commitments frankly and in advance. Outline when you are available or not for meetings and stick to a predictable schedule.

Lead by example

Hybrid work is most effective when adopted by everyone “not through policy but through practice”, says Lucy Kallin, executive director for Emea at Catalyst. Team leaders should therefore set an example by working from home themselves and encouraging their teams to do so, too.

She suggests introducing a “remote-first” rule on some days, where staff need a reason to go to the office instead of working remotely.

Chamberlin — who usually works about three days a week from home at the moment — agrees this is crucial to creating the more equal workplaces many hoped that the pandemic reset would bring.

“Companies that have hybrid working policies need to encourage all employees — not just women — to consider how they can make best use of flexible working,” she says. “Making sure employees feel that it’s OK to use the options available to them, and still find ways to develop in their career, is key.”

Promote accomplishments

Being out of sight can make it harder to demonstrate accomplishments.

“Daily wins are often harder to communicate, or spot, when teams aren’t together,” says Kristen Lipton, managing director of business development at research group Gallup. She advises workers to recognise accomplishments — “not only that of your colleagues, or your team members, but your own; document successes and celebrate them.”

“Women opting more to be remote can find their networks become smaller,” warns Mark Mortensen, associate professor of organisational behaviour at business school Insead. He suggests purposely making connections with colleagues who can support and promote you.

Recognise challenges

Keeping the right balance between work life and home life is harder when flexible working blurs the boundaries. “Women might find they face unrealistic expectations to not only ‘do it all’ but ‘do it all at once’,” says Lipton. One partial remedy is to set — and honour — boundaries about work hours and out-of-hours messages.

A growing concern is that on-site managers will be tempted to favour some employees with promotions and opportunities, simply because they are more visible.

“We are just beginning to experience the weight of the potential negative impact of hybrid on women,” points out Lipton. “If on-site managers let proximity bias creep in, women working hybrid — for all the benefits it brings — may inadvertently flex themselves out of . . . career promotions long term.”

It is up to managers to ensure hybrid workplaces remain well-functioning. “The real issue is not that women need to make the most of hybrid work,” says Kallin, “but that companies and leaders need to maximise its benefits.”

Win a free EMBA

The FT is launching its annual Women in Business essay competition in partnership with the 30% Club and Henley Business School. The prize is a fully funded place on Henley’s part-time Executive MBA programme starting from October 2024.

This year’s question is: ‘Will Artificial Intelligence (AI) be a help or a hindrance to women achieving greater representation in leadership?’

The deadline is May 28. More information: hly.ac/WiLscholarship

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