Your workplace is ‘flexible’ and hybrid — but is it feminist?
In May 2020, a few weeks after offices and schools closed due to the pandemic in the UK, I spoke to Tariq*. He works for a large international non-profit organisation in London. I asked him how he was coping with lockdown and working from home. At the time, I was struggling on multiple fronts — trying to home-school my kids, juggling several consultancy contracts and attempting to provide emotional support to those around me. I assumed Tariq might be going through the same emotional spin cycle. I was wrong. The overwhelming emotion Tariq was feeling was… relief. ‘I am so grateful not to have to work in the office any more,’ he told me. ‘I don’t have to conform to all of the white, middle-class office norms. I don’t have to pray in the broom cupboard because the organisation hasn’t prioritised finding me an adequate prayer space. I don’t have to listen to all the blokes bantering about their nights out together in the pub after work or make any excuses about why I didn’t join them. Yes, we’re all in lockdown — but to be honest, I’m feeling liberated.’
As the weeks and months went by, I spoke to more and more people like Tariq. I noticed a pattern — those people working in organisations where they were part of a minoritised group were more likely to feel relieved not to have to be physically present in their offices. Over a year later, and for many people, remote working is likely to continue for the foreseeable future as the pandemic rolls on, vaccines are scarce and rich countries obstruct efforts towards a just system for global vaccine distributions. For others, it’s slowly drawing to an end, as organisations start to introduce hybrid working practices. If the recent research is anything to go by, minoritised people like Tariq are less likely to want to return to the office. Why should we care about this? Surely offering people a choice is the right thing to do?
Let’s take my friend Nambewe. The leaders in her organisation have just announced their new hybrid working policy. Staff are being offered the chance to work flexibly from home, as well as come into the office — which Nambewe affectionately calls the ‘Death Star’ — for up to five days per week. Employees need to choose at least one day when they will be physically present with the rest of their team in the office, unless they’re based overseas. She says, ‘My organisation is incredibly proud of the flexibility it’s offering us. But something doesn’t sit right with me. I’m looking at who is opting to return to the Death Star more days a week than others. It’s the senior leaders and the cis white men who are choosing to do this. People of colour, and generally women with kids or caregiving responsibilities are hoping to do more work at home. But the bosses haven’t noticed — or perhaps they don’t care. They’re too busy clapping themselves on the back about how ‘flexible’ they are and how that’s a sign of how progressive our company is.’
Nambewe has hit on something here that feminist leaders need to be aware of. As remote working patterns continue over the long-term, or as hybrid working gets introduced, we need to be vigilant about the long-term effects on power relations in our workplaces. Because at the moment, this isn’t on employers’ radar to the extent that it should be — a survey in the US found that only 13% of employers were concerned about ensuring parity between remote employees and in-office employees. And we must be intentional about disrupting some of the harmful dynamics that may emerge. Here’s how we can make a start.
Interrupt the ‘fetishisation’ of flexibility
Throughout the pandemic, I have heard of and worked with many organisations who have prided themselves on the flexibility they have allowed employees. But to so many employees, flexibility hadn’t really made their lives better. One single mother I spoke to worked late evenings and early mornings with very little adjustment in her workload so she could also spend her days home-schooling her young son. She would regularly send work emails at 4.30am and worked 14-hour days. ‘My employers are sympathetic,’ she told me. ‘But no-one’s got any solutions for me. The workload is pretty much the same.’ A new report from the Autonomy thinktank proposes that working from home during the pandemic has caused an ‘epidemic of hidden overtime’ that particularly affects women. They also found that women working from home were 43% more likely to have increased their hours beyond a standard working week than men.
The flexibility offered by so many employers during Covid has not been the feminist victory it is sometimes set up to be. It has not single-handedly transformed the gender division of labour. It has not led to upticks in women’s wellbeing. Too many organisations and leaders have and continue to frame flexible working as the panacea for all ills, when it’s merely extended the working day for so many, making it even more difficult for people to draw boundaries around paid employment and other parts of their lives.
A feminist version of flexibility would be one based first and foremost on the responsibilities of care that disproportionately fall on women’s shoulders. It would challenge toxic productivity practices that sell us the lie that ‘working when and where you want, as long as you get the work done’ is some kind of feminist ‘gift’. It would acknowledge that something’s got to give — and it shouldn’t be women’s time, workloads or wellbeing. It would acknowledge everyone’s right to disconnect — meaning that employees should not have to take calls or read work emails during their time off.
Hybrid work and proximity bias
As hybrid working practices scale up in parts of the world, I’ve noticed that it is also being sold in the same way as flexibility is — i.e. the solution to all that ails us.
What should feminist leaders be aware of when it comes to hybrid working? First up, is proximity bias. Workers who aren’t as visible or physically present as others risk getting forgotten by those in positions of power. Those who do have visibility are more likely to gain preferential access to information and opportunities to build the social capital they need to succeed in their organisations. Just think about all the informal conversations, sidebar discussions and ad hoc networking and bonding that is so difficult to do if you aren’t physically present with your bosses and co-workers. Those who are physically present may also have to provide less proof of their trustworthiness, and may receive more credit for collective work than those people who have worked remotely.
We must also be aware of the racial and gendered dimensions of proximity bias. I heard multiple stories at the beginning of the pandemic from women of colour who told me that their relationships with their line managers had deteriorated since offices closed, as micromanaging behaviours had increased. One woman told me, ‘My relationship with my line manager was never good. She’s never trusted me and questions my expertise all the time. She proofreads my work several times before it’s allowed to be seen externally. And she can’t cope with me working out of her sight. She messages me constantly and calls me up at unexpected times just to see whether I’m still at my desk.’ New research from People Like Us backs up what I had been hearing anecdotally. They found that over a third of Black, Asian and ethnic minority people in the UK had felt pressure from their managers to return to work, partly because of a lack of trust.
Just over a year of working remotely during a pandemic has not changed the deep-rooted, capitalist conceptions of the ‘ideal’ worker as someone who is physically present, able to work long hours and unencumbered by domestic responsibilities.
Designing from the margins
In order to avoid entrenching unequal power relations or consolidating the physical office as the default centre of power, we must ‘design from the margins’ when we think about how to structure hybrid working practices for our organisations. This means starting from the perspective of those diverse groups working remotely, and ensuring that all working practices benefit them and address their intersectional needs from the outset. By starting from the margins and building outwards, everyone benefits.
We can consider questions like, what assumptions have we made about our employees who are working from home? Recent research from People Like Us found that Black workers in the UK were twice as likely as white people to be working at home without a desk. What sources of power are available to those spending more time in the office that those at home do not have? We’re talking here not just about technology and infrastructure, but also access to emotional and peer support.
I asked my friend Shipra, who has been working remotely from India for an international organisation for several years about what she finds the most difficult about the way she works. Most of the staff in her organisation spend more time in the London office than she does — or at least they did before Covid came.
‘The worst part of remote work is not being able to develop a bond with your co-workers as individuals. There is a challenge of being able to connect with your colleagues as real people with lives, emotions and concerns outside of work. It has a huge bearing on my work and myself.’
We can learn so much from inspiring feminist organisations like Urgent Action Fund Africa, whose employees have been working remotely and virtually for many years now. One of the practices they have championed is the importance of acknowledging and honouring the different contexts in which staff are based. They sometimes start their calls with the ‘3 Ps’ — offering everyone a chance to share personal, political as well as professional updates.
Small changes might also make a big difference here. Recent research from Stanford University suggests that Zoom fatigue may be gendered. Giving people options for how to participate in calls — audio only, videos off — or setting stricter limits about call times can be helpful. Meanwhile, holding online space in a feminist way has never been more important. Unequal power relations can become intensified or entrenched online — 40% of women who took part in a recent Catalyst survey said they found it hard to be heard in online meetings; 20% said they’d been ignored or overlooked in online spaces.
We cannot afford to get complacent about any assumed ‘benefits’ to home-working, either. For example, remote work has not meant a reduction in workplace sexual harassment. Indeed, evidence from the finance sector shows that it may be increasing. Feminists will not be surprised — sexual harassment was never about physical proximity; it was always an issue of power differentials and workplace culture.
Neglect line managers at your peril!
It strikes me that line managers will play such a pivotal role over the coming months, yet they so rarely get the guidance they need to make sure they support their teams both practically and emotionally through these shifts in working modalities. They need support to identify and be able to disrupt some of the unequal power dynamics inherent in hybrid working. They might need help knowing how to energise and motivate their hybrid teams. They need to understand how to create and use feedback channels that allow people in their teams to voice their needs and concerns and then provide support to be able to act on these. They should be self-aware about how their own working practices might impact those around them. They need strong empathy and emotional intelligence to be able to pick up on and support those who are struggling with mental health issues while working from home. These areas — power analysis, accountability, mutual care — are precisely the types of skills that feminist leadership approaches centre.
Avoid synthetic wellbeing statements
Google recently released this wellbeing statement for remote workers (see pic above). This came on the back of the results of their latest staff survey, which highlighted that wellbeing had dropped for many of their employees. Feminist leaders need to be very wary about issuing low-cost, high-noise, synthetic statements such as this one as a substitute for deep, structural change. Yes, Google’s statement looks pretty good on paper. But this is also a company that is considering docking the pay of people who choose to work from home permanently. It is a company that has repeatedly been accused of institutional racism and sexism. The suggestion in their wellbeing statement that workers should ‘challenge things they’re not comfortable with’ needs to be seen within the context of these wider corporate power dynamics.
Whether your organisation is working remotely or instituting hybrid practices, we believe — with care and purposeful intention — work can be meaningful, nourishing, inclusive and equitable for everyone. That’s something worth striving for.
*Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect people’s identities
Alongside Natalie Brook, Leila Billing is the Co-Founder of We Are Feminist Leaders — an initiative that supports organisations and individuals to apply feminist leadership principles to the ways in which they lead and work. Follow her on Twitter: @leilabilling