Solving for gender disparity in the hybrid workforce 

Solving for gender disparity in the hybrid workforce 
19/03/2021 James Middleton

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With vaccine rollout plans underway globally and several countries beginning to lessen restrictions on movement, there are considerations to be made for getting employees back on site. 

It’s still too early to predict who might return to the physical workplace and there are likely to be differences between sectors but there are valid concerns that if there is any choice in the matter businesses could see a gender disparity as men are more likely to return to the physical office than women. 

The term ‘hybrid workforce’ has appeared in several articles this week in reference to the likely reality that even with the reopening of the physical workplace, some portion of the workforce will still be virtual at any given time. 

But in an article for HBR, Mark Mortensen, associate professor of Organizational Behaviour at INSEAD, and Martine Haas, Lauder Chair Professor of Management at the Wharton School, warn that hybridity also creates power differentials within teams that can damage relationships, impede effective collaboration, and ultimately reduce performance. 

Remote work affects employees differently 

Over the last 12 months we’ve all learned, primarily through lived experience, that cultures of integrity are stronger when employees experience a sense of balance between work and home –  something that is critical for the remote workforce, since there may not be a physical distinction. 

But as remote workers we’ve also discovered that a weaker technological setup and infrastructure (slow connections, inability to access certain resources from home, a less sophisticated home office setup) makes it more difficult to demonstrate competence. 

This is less problematic when the majority of workers are remote but becomes significant in a hybrid environment because not being present for informal interactions leaves remote workers feeling out of the loop, more isolated, and lacking the relationships and connections that provide social support.

To come back to the point about gender disparity, anecdotal evidence suggests that with less responsibility for childcare, more men will elect to go back to the workplace, while more women will opt for the flexibility of working from home. 

This is a new concern but it comes on top of existing evidence that women are already disadvantaged by the remote work model. 

A recent Catalyst survey found that 45% of female business leaders reported that it is difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings. One in five women says she has been overlooked or ignored by colleagues in video calls. So, this evidence suggests it may be even more important for women to be physically present to be heard.

These concerns are a persistent topic of conversation in the several ECI Working Groups that Vault Platform participates in, so it’s clearly a topic on many Ethics & Compliance professionals’ radars. However, there is also an acknowledgment that the solution involves cross-functional collaboration, especially with HR. 

High-quality ethics programs prioritize risk management by continuously identifying and mitigating risks by prioritizing early issue spotting and providing guidance and support to employees on handling key risks. 

As well as exposing these challenges in greater detail, the recent Working Group paper on Remote Work Environment considerations also identified some opportunities and best practices that can be adopted by both Ethics and HR functions. 

Better collaboration through tech 

Increased use of technology allows better collaboration among stakeholders. Easily scheduled remote “check-in” meetings with employees and business unit leaders allow stronger feedback loops and the E&C team to be more involved in early decision making.

This also applies to investigations conducted by E&C or HR over allegations of misconduct (including discrimination, bullying, and harassment). The access to more advanced tools and better developed interpersonal connections were cited as additional positive outcomes of remote working. With some additional preparation and discipline during the virtual meetings, the outcomes of the risk assessment sessions were actually better than the previous in-person format.

So, technology can actually better expose risk and help organizations resolve it in a remote work environment. 

Increased comfort in speaking up 

Reporters may feel an increased level of privacy and be more comfortable speaking up outside the office environment. This finding is supported by the 2020 boom in external whistleblowing cases. But be warned that while employees may feel more comfortable speaking up remotely, if the process to do so internally becomes frustrating, they also feel more comfortable raising their concerns externally too. 

Increased use of digital reporting tools

More extensive use of technology and online information centers in a remote work environment may increase the likelihood that online reporting solutions are utilized, suggesting that employers should look at tech options available for facilitating speak up. 

One best practice outcome from deployment of such technologies is the more frequent notice and therefore earlier detection of brewing concerns. This technology can be leveraged to obtain general employee cultural feedback, which can overlap or be a leading indicator of compliance and ethics concerns. The theory is that if employees are more used to providing regular feedback that may not quite reach the level of “concern” but does relate to discomfort or a work oriented challenge, they will be more comfortable bringing forward issues of true concern (i.e., they have muscle memory and the hurdle to coming forward is lower). 

This makes tech-focused speak up solutions a viable option to consider when addressing the gender disparity concerns of a hybrid work environment. 

Get the full whitepaper, here