Over the course of the last few months, there’s no doubt that our lives have been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. As social distancing guidelines locked into place, virtually all companies tried flexible work in some capacity while schools across the globe switched to online learning, making video calling the default channel for interacting with friends and family.
While navigating all of these changes and dealing with grief on a global level has been exhausting and challenging, there might be a silver lining: The push to adopt flexible work has ultimately proven that flexible work is possible, and could lead us to a more diverse workforce. About 62 percent of Americans say they have worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent Gallup poll. Of those who are working remotely, 59 percent said that they would like to work remotely as much as possible when the pandemic is over.
Though the pandemic has been far from sunshine and roses for working moms, it could still benefit women in the long-run and increase gender diversity in the workplace. Previous studies have shown that women are more likely than men to compromise their career when the needs of children and other family members conflict with work. Over the course of their lives, these compromises pile up and can undermine women’s economic prospects, resulting in fewer women filling executive level positions and widening the gender wage gap.
Embracing flexible work clearly isn’t the end-all-be-all solution to the gender wage gap. However, it will position women to have a career trajectory that isn’t plagued by interruptions and subsequent financial losses, through the creation of a work structure that is more compatible with the ebbs and flows of caregiving—and, well, life.
Flexible work is often talked about solely through the lens of diversifying the workforce in terms of gender, but studies show that incorporating flexible work can help build a more diverse workforce in terms of socioeconomic background and ethnicity. If someone can work remotely for their position, that removes one financial barrier to entry by eliminating relocation fees and paying for housing in a more expensive city. It also creates geographic diversity by opening up an entirely new pool of talent because the candidate can be located anywhere.
A July 2020 study from Cisco Systems Inc. and Freeform Dynamics interviewed 1,500 senior managers on the topic of workplace transformation in 13 countries across eight industries and found that half of senior managers said the rapid pivot to home working during the pandemic will “probably” or “almost certainly” lead to a more inclusive recruitment policy to tap into a broader talent pool. Another 29 percent said that it’s a possible outcome. One participant noted how people who were previously not physically able to commute back and forth to a traditional job are now very much on their “recruitment radar,” pointing to the ways in which flexible work being the norm would also create a more diverse workforce by ensuring people living with disabilities are included.
Data from pre-pandemic years also supports the notion that flexible work is a valuable step towards diversifying the workforce. Research compiled at the University of Westminster in 2013 found that flexible work arrangements are an integral part of diversity implementation by encouraging equity and social inclusion.
“Flexible work arrangements clearly set out to enhance and encourage the employability of a more diverse pool of labour, especially in terms of gender and ethnic minority participation but also related to religion, age and disability,” the research reads.
Despite the fact that research on the value of flexible work existed pre-pandemic, the COVID-19 era has forced the acceptance of remote work on a much larger scale due to social distancing guidelines and safety requirements. Of course, the long-term positive effects of adopting flexible work are also predicated on whether or not children will be able to return to school, as working moms will leave the workforce at alarming rates if childcare is unavailable. But hopefully this increase in remote work on a global scale will carve out a future with a workforce that is more inclusive and meaningfully diverse.
Manon DeFelice is an entrepreneur, a mother of three and an agent of change. As the founder and CEO of Inkwell, a startup that places accomplished professionals in flexible high-level positions, she’s working to establish a new model for the workplace and leading the flexible work revolution. In past roles as executive director of the AHA Foundation and assistant counsel in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office, Manon used her law-school credentials to stand up for women’s rights. At Inkwell, she continues to advocate for women by using the flex-work model to support working mothers, in addition to veterans, people with disabilities and other groups that have been traditionally left out of the workforce.