Thursday 1 October 2020 4:00 am

DEBATE: Will workplace diversity suffer from a new flexible working culture?

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Jo Preston is director & head of people at Teamspirit.
and Jilly Calder
Jilly Calder is vice president human resource at Atkins.

Will workplace diversity suffer from a new flexible working culture?

Jo Preston, director & head of people at Teamspirit, says YES 

One of the silver linings of the coronavirus pandemic has been the corporate pivot towards flexible working. The swiftness with which thousands of employees transitioned from office desks to kitchen tables demonstrated a huge collegiate effort in the face of adversity. And it is a really positive step forward for many, many employees around the country. But, amid all this rallying, there is a danger that elements of workplace diversity could be overlooked. 

Some groups may well be suffering in light of the new ways of working. People whose home environment isn’t conducive to professional work, including those in shared housing or without good access to the internet have struggled with the transition to working from home. Those in marginalised communities may suffer especially from the lack of in-person employee support groups, including individuals from LGBTQ and minority ethnic groups. 

And with the financial impact of the pandemic front of mind, it would be all too easy for diversity and inclusion initiatives to slip to the bottom of the corporate agenda, leaving oppressed communities to deal with challenging times ahead without adequate support. 

That’s why it’s more important than ever that both diversity and inclusion remain absolute priorities, with adequate time and resources invested to ensure flexible working does not come at the expense of workplace culture. The challenge for companies is to become truly agile to meet the needs of their staff and clients, and operate safely and successfully in the new digitally-led world while continuing to place employees, both current and future, front and centre of the organisation. 

Jilly Calder, vice president human resource at Atkins, says NO

Flexible working has been a renaissance for corporate culture on a global scale. No individual, industry, or nation has gone unaffected by the pandemic, and the dawn of digitisation and agility has been accelerated at a rate nobody could have foreseen in 2019. 

In terms of workplace diversity, employers who get it right should see flexibility as an asset, not a hurdle. Certain groups are well placed to benefit. Flexible working brings with it a new level of accessibility; for those with disabilities and underlying health conditions, for those with parental and caring responsibilities, and even for those outside of London or living away from major cities, the professional world has become infinitely easier to navigate. 

This has a knock-on effect on employers. Employees with a better work-life balance tend to be more motivated, which in turn improves productivity. Flexible working may bring with it lower overheads, and this combined with increased employee engagement and trust should positively impact the bottom line. 

But for this to happen, it’s vital that “flexible working” lives up to its name. Flexibility denotes choice, agility, and empowerment. An enforced long-term working from home policy is not flexible, and may even swing the pendulum in the other direction, causing harm to groups who would benefit from an office environment. 

Now is the time for businesses to regroup and take stock on their roadmap for the future, and in doing so, take the opportunity to keep diversity and inclusion front and centre of the new working culture.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.