As employees start to return to pre-pandemic workplaces, it's timely to ask: Will hybrid working increase or decrease gender inequality in the public sector?
Research has shown that during lockdowns, women bore the brunt of domestic responsibilities, supervising home schooling, undertaking domestic duties, while also engaging in paid employment. The picture was grim, but as hybrid working becomes embedded, there is potential for this form of working to progress workplace equality.
Last year we surveyed more than 5000 employees in the Australian Public Service about their experience of working from home. Since publishing an initial report, further analysis reveals some interesting findings for organisations to consider.
One of our most important findings relates to productivity. Across most age groups, more women than men considered that their productivity increased while working from home. Three quarters of women with caring responsibilities stated that they could get more work done while working at home, compared with two-thirds of men carers. Almost two thirds of women managers considered they were more productive at home, compared with just over half of the male managers.
Perceptions of increased productivity may be related to working longer hours. Our findings show that women (including managers) worked longer hours than did their male counterparts. Women undertaking longer hours, and outside the usual bandwidth, is not good for gender equality, as it can lead to increased work/family conflict.
While work/family spillover is a risk when working from home, this form of working can enable women to increase their part-time working hours. Working more hours is good for gender equality as it can progress women's careers, boost retirement income and decrease the gender pay gap.
More women than men across most age groups said that being able to increase their part-time working hours was an important reason to work from home. Working more hours wasn't an issue for men as relatively few work part-time. Two to three times as many women compared with men in peak child rearing years indicated that being able to increase their part-time working hours was an important factor when deciding to work from home. These findings highlight that hybrid working may be a lever to increase women's labour force participation.
As well as being the majority of part-time workers, women are also the main users of flexible working arrangements. However, our findings show that more men than women had their request to work flexibly approved. Researchers have found that men who access flexible working arrangements can be stigmatised. Our findings suggest that men working flexibly may be becoming normalised in the APS.
This may help to explain our finding that more men than women think that their agency and direct manager is supportive of flexible working. More men than women with caring responsibilities also agreed that their agency and manager support the use of flexible work arrangements.
In contrast, people with disabilities are more likely to disagree that their agency, and their manager supports working flexibly. This finding was slightly more pronounced for women with disabilities, compared to men with a disability. Women with a disability were also slightly more likely to have their request to work flexibly denied compared to women without a disability.
This is a concern, as more employees with disabilities considered that their productivity was higher working from home, than those without disabilities. Almost 70 per cent of women with a disability stated they were more productive working from home, compared with just under half of men without a disability. Yet, it is men without disability whose requests to work from home were granted more often.
Our findings show that people with disabilities are one of the groups most at risk of leaving their agency if they are unable to work from home for at least part of the week. The other main group is young women (aged 20 to 24), with more than half stating they were more likely to change agencies if they were unable to work from home, compared with just over a fifth of young men.
As well as valuing working from home, younger women value autonomy. Women across all age groups stated that autonomy was an important factor in working from home, but this was especially so for younger women. However, increased autonomy resulted in less collaboration, and younger women stated that they found it slightly more difficult than other demographic age groups to collaborate with colleagues while working from home.
So, what does all this mean? First, it tells us that there are untapped sources of labour and potential which could be harnessed if part-time women workers and employees with disabilities work hybridly. Second, these findings show that different groups of employees have different preferences and needs in relation to working from home. An intersectional approach which takes into account employees' diverse identities can reveal previously hidden nuances, as shown by this analysis. In a nutshell, hybrid working can progress gender equality, but the associated opportunities and risks to employees and agencies varies according to the different cohorts of women.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.