Women's relationship with 'the office'
I was always led to believe that the fundamental premise behind recruitment is that it’s about finding the best person for the job.
It’s complicated and it’s changing.
As we all know, for decades pre-pandemic work for the vast majority of us was ‘in the office’. It's all we had ever known. But it wasn’t working for any of us all of the time, and it especially wasn’t working for women. An indigestible cocktail of inflexible hours, long commutes, microaggressions, lack of career growth, cost of childcare and the increasing demands of aging parents, meant that burnout was rife, and quitting was sadly on the up.
According to the ONS, in 2022 there were 1.75 million women who left the workforce for family reasons. That’s a lot of women, so clearly working in the office all of the time doesn’t work!
So I don’t buy our chancellor, Jeremy Hunt’s latest leadership cry to reset the working default button to all in the office,
Thanks to the rapid deployment of technology and the rise of the DE&I agenda, changes to more flexible working arrangements pre-pandemic were happening but they were incremental and it felt a bit like watching paint dry. Then bang, in March 2020 Covid struck the world and overnight we swapped an archaic default for an ‘avant-garde’ all in, kids and all, home working.
For a brief spell there was much reported euphoria and news coverage that the office was a thing of the past and working from your garden shed or under the stairs was going to be the new norm.
I never bought that argument and still don’t.
The default isn’t full time office – sorry, Jeremy – but it also isn’t all home either. To be fair, I don’t think the point he was making was about ‘where’ you work; it was more the sweeping assumption that one is more productive in the office.
We need the office. We all do - women as well! However, what has changed is the role the office plays in our working lives.
My relationship with the office.
I am 54 and I started work in 1990 in an incredibly male dominated office environment. I basically had to behave like a man in a skirt to survive (wearing trousers for many years was a complete no no. But when I was allowed to, I still had to behave like a man!) But whilst we were expected to be ‘in the office’ 8-6 in reality we weren’t. Long boozy lunches were a standard affair, meetings on the golf course an accepted norm and leaving your jacket on your office chair a standard decoy to disappear out of the office early! Even back then in the dark ages pre mobile phones, people didn’t want or need to be in the office all of the time.
Skip forward to 2004 and the next 19 years of my career. I worked for myself in various guises. I had a home office for strategic thinking time, admin time, and doing the desk bound work while the rest of my time I spent with clients ‘in their offices’ or with colleagues ‘in their offices’ and with partners ‘in their offices’. I was out and about, away from home interacting with people and I loved it. More importantly, I needed it. I had the best of both worlds, and my default setting was work life integration.
However, this year I have never felt lonelier in all of my working career. The feeling has been creeping up on me and then one day, a few weeks ago it slapped me in the face and it pained me to realise just how much I hate working remotely full time. I now have a love-hate relationship with Teams and Zoom and I know that I am not alone. Research has shown that full time remote working increases loneliness by 67% which will inevitably have a negative impact on productivity.
I am not a behavioural psychologist but even my study of the human psyche leads me to the conclusion that we all need to varying degrees the interaction of other people and that’s the value of the office.
So what lessons have we learned about the office environment as a place for women to work, and which works for women?
Prejudiced against women
The office environment mustn’t operate as a petri-dish of microaggressions that fester and ferment over time, getting to a point when a woman says “enough is enough. I can’t be bothered to put up with this sh*t anymore, there is more to life and I quit.” This behaviour needs to be called out and dealt with. It needs instead to be inclusive. If it isn’t, the women will leave.
Genuine flexible working
Primarily mothers need, not just want, to be able to integrate their work schedules around inflexible school hours and childcare practices. If they can't, the women will leave.
It’s the pointless commute for the sake of being in the office that has, over time, zapped the energy and enthusiasm of millions of people. For women, juggling a demanding home life is not an effective use of their precious time. So again, the women will leave.
A lot of women work or want to work so that they can get away from the never-ending humdrum of daily domesticity. Let’s face it, for years men have perfected the art of dodging this one. The office therefore offers an amazing opportunity to break away from the monotony of domestic chores and to swap it for interesting social interaction, intellectual stimulation and creativity that working from your home office can’t. It just isn’t necessary to go there every day.
That’s why, Jeremy Hunt, the default is in the middle; it’s work life integration which the hybrid world supports.
After all, an office environment that works for a woman will work for everyone.