The importance of this year’s “International Women’s Day” cannot be underestimated. More than ever, we need to celebrate women’s achievements and highlight the fact that, far from diminishing, the pandemic has caused gender inequality to intensify. At WorldCC we recognise many incredible women working in the field of commerce and contracting through our Inspiring Women Program.
When we celebrated IWD in 2020 little did we know what the year ahead would bring, particularly the hardship that it would create for so many women around the world. The pandemic has brought many existing challenges into stark relief, and there is no doubt that it has accelerated our thinking and our actions in areas such as environmentalism, sustainability, social value and the use and impact of technology. What it has also done, as well as creating a global public health crisis, is both highlight and deepen issues of inequality. Women, alongside the poor, elderly, disabled and migrant populations, have borne the brunt of the fallout from the pandemic.
A report from McKinsey Global Institute estimates than women have been left more than 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic’s impact than men. One reason for this is that the virus has increased the burden of unpaid care for children, the elderly and the sick, which is disproportionately taken on by women. The situation is compounded by existing gender inequalities. The report calls for urgent action to prevent the deepening divisions between male and female employment opportunities and to maximise global economic health.
Alongside this narrative is extensive discussion around the future of work and the workplace. The pandemic accelerated existing trends in remote working, and businesses certainly seem to be grasping the opportunity to reimagine how and where work is done. Many employers are consulting with their workforce and devising hybrid remote working strategies for the longer term. This approach will inevitably expand access to talent, increase employee satisfaction and reduce real estate costs. What it will also do is contribute to workplace equality by providing a flexible and adaptable working environment.
There are notable exceptions to this approach, a recent example came in the form of a statement from David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs. Mr Solomon pointed particularly to the impact on business culture. “I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us. It’s an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.”
I confess to being, perhaps naively, somewhat taken aback by this statement. Culture is something that I focus on extensively in the context of my role as CEO of World Commerce & Contracting. We are and always have been a global team working remotely – does that mean we can’t have “an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture”? Far from it! We have spent significant time over the last five years on our culture and engaged the support of an expert in organisational culture, Kevin Brownsey.
Kevin rightly points out that “culture is first and foremost about shared beliefs, translating into common behaviours that drive outcomes”. There are in fact very few elements of culture that require an office environment to support it – those who argue creativity and spontaneous idea generation can only happen in the office simply have to look at what has been achieved in the last year to recognise that this is certainly not definitive. I can equally testify to the creativity and spontaneous idea generation of the WorldCC team.
The more worrying aspect of employees being marched back to the office is the effect on inclusion and equality. A flexible work environment is by its very nature an inclusive work environment, one that recognises and supports a greater integration between home and work, doesn’t automatically discriminate based on disability and recognises the importance of the triple bottom line. Insisting on employees being in the office surely creates a level of exclusivity that operates completely counter to the diversity and inclusivity statements and goals of most organisations, including that of Goldman Sachs.
There are also other significant opportunities that come from a remote work environment should we choose to embrace them, not least the opportunity to think far more creatively about the networks we work with and within. Far from narrowing horizons, the pandemic has afforded us the opportunity to really broaden them, to connect with people from all around the world – people who previously we would have assumed were out of our reach.
Interestingly, Kevin also observed the following “I have been amazed by the relationships I have formed in the past 12 months with clients whom I’ve never met.” And from conversations that I have had with members from all over the world, there is certainly an overwhelming sense of emotional closeness despite the physical distances that we have had to accept. As I reflect at the end of each working day I am often amazed at the diversity of people with whom I have communicated – multiple countries, multiple industries, multiple perspectives and viewpoints – something I find motivating and inspirational.
There is understandable focus on young people and their need for direct contact and mentorship. That said, even pre-pandemic, many younger workers expected greater work flexibility including the freedom to work outside the office. The hybrid future discussed above means ensuring workers are equipped with the skills to navigate a career that includes remote working and recognises the infinite possibilities that this presents in the context of developing networks and acquiring knowledge from far more diverse sources.
What is not in dispute here is the general need for people to meet and socialise again, but that is not about creating corporate culture, it’s about human beings fulfilling a basic need to be social.
I #ChoosetoChallenge the view that the remote work environment is an “aberration”. I do so for all the reasons set out above and specifically in relation to the impact that this view will have on gender equality in organisations and to inclusion more broadly.
I believe that companies that shout loudest about the need to get back to the office are companies who already struggle for trust and consequently doubt that productivity can be maintained with homework. According to an article in the New York Times Mr Solomon is stated to be instilling an increasingly hierarchical culture, replacing the traditional partnership culture that has previously existed. Several senior executives are reported to be leaving Goldman including its top lawyer and one of its black female partners. In the end, people can also #choosetochallenge by voting with their feet!
My call to action therefore, is for all those who care about opportunity, fairness and equality to raise their voices in support of a more flexible, adaptable and modern working environment.