Insights

Flexibility Works: Unlocking Diversity

When faced with two similar employment offers, one with fixed work hours and the other with flexible work arrangements, which would you choose? In a survey of more than 15,000 across 100 countries, 80% said that they would turn down the job that didn’t offer flexible working arrangements.

With Covid-19 accelerating the shift towards remote and hybrid working arrangements, flexible workplaces continue to be sought after by job-seekers today. It’s not hard to see why—the benefits of flexible work arrangements are numerous. 

Workplace flexibility boosts productivity by shifting the emphasis away from “presenteeism” to setting and achieving measurable goals. Research has also shown that flexible working improves work-life balance. reduces worker fatigue and burnout, and is better for the environment, minimising carbon emissions

Opportunities

What’s more, flexible working arrangements are a significant driver of diversity and inclusion. Caregivers, people with disabilities, people with health conditions, people who are neurodiverse, those who are semi-retired or furthering their studies on a part-time basis all stand to benefit from being able to choose where, when, and how they should carry out their work. In fact, flexible work arrangements are often less of a “nice-to-have” and more of a “must-have” for certain groups, including:

  • People with disabilities, and people with physical or mental health conditions. Being able to schedule doctor’s appointments on a weekday, for instance, could be a huge help for someone with a chronic illness, just as working from home might enable a neurodivergent individual to regulate the amount of environmental stimulus for optimal focus. Studies have also shown that employees with disabilities were 11% more likely to prefer a hybrid work model than their peers without disabilities.
  • Employees impacted by the rising cost of living near their workplaces. By eliminating or reducing the need to travel to work, remote and hybrid working arrangements could attract diverse talent across a wider geographical and socioeconomic ambit, particularly where economic housing limitations correlate with zoning and proximity to city centres.

By enabling those who would otherwise be unable to take on employment to do so on their own terms, flexible work can be a critical driver of diversity and inclusion.

Challenges

For all the advantages that it offers, flexible working also entails unique challenges. Isolation from colleagues, a lack of access to office equipment, and difficulties coordinating diverging working schedules all pose potential pitfalls. More worryingly, flexible working, if poorly implemented, could entrench existing biases and diversity gaps in workplaces that already struggle with inclusion, further amplifying in-group versus out-group dynamics.

We know that people in positions of power tend to favour those who are physically closer to them. This phenomenon, known as proximity bias, might place remote workers—especially employees from already underrepresented communities, who typically prefer flexible work—at a further disadvantage. Globally, working mothers and fathers are more likely than non-parents to be opting into flexible work arrangements (75% versus 63%). Persons with disabilities have also reported feeling twice as anxious about demonstrating their contributions and being considered for promotions when working remotely. 

Without a culture of trust and accountability, remote employees who feel pressured to show that they are on the ball may end up packing their shared calendars with meetings and appointments. Constantly attending discussions that could continue without their supervision or input takes away time from independent work, leading to burnout in the long term. 

Clearly, when it comes to implementing flexible work for diversity and inclusion, there is no one-size fits-all approach. Hybrid work can potentially offer a more tailored employee experience, benefiting those who need it the most. Yet, flexible working policies designed on traditional work models may often fail to take into account diverse needs and accommodations, and may even exacerbate existing biases if left unchecked. 

Next steps

How then can companies ensure that their flexible work policies are contributing to their DEI aims without compromising the bottom line? Here are some ways to begin: 

  • Start by establishing clear objectives and metrics that are aligned with the company’s overall DEI strategy. 
  • Educate employees on company values and flexible work policies to ensure that everyone is on the same page. 
  • Combat proximity bias by building awareness and implementing counter-measures. Agreeing on measurable goals, having regular check-ins, either online or in-person, and creating opportunities for employees to gain exposure and recognition for their work, regardless of where they work from, could mitigate the impact of such biases.
  • Leverage technology to build more inclusive flexible work environments. This could look like investing in virtual learning experiences, or upskilling workers to collaborate via digital tools and platforms more effectively. Voice captioning or text-to-speech functions could also be built into shared software to ensure accessibility for persons with hearing or visual impairments.
  • Implement a pilot on flexible work arrangements to test their suitability.
  • Conduct training for leaders to ensure that they are equipped to (a) address diverse needs and (b) manage remote or hybrid teams effectively. 
  • Cultivate a culture of transparent communication and establish feedback mechanisms. 
  • Document processes, gather data about productivity and performance, and conduct reviews to measure the impact of flexible work. 

As the global workforce ages and large-scale disruptions become increasingly common with climate change, tried and tested workplace arrangements will no longer remain effective in attracting top talent and driving continued growth and innovation. 

It’s high time for organisations to rethink conventional ways of working in order to build truly inclusive, future-proof workplaces where individuals from all walks of life are empowered to excel.