Back in early 2020, in the days before the Covid-19 pandemic reached European shores, I interviewed the country manager of a large technology company that had just announced its expansion plans for Ireland.
A standard question I always ask is what are the three biggest risks that the business faces. Without skipping a beat, the person responded: ‘People, people, people.’ The challenge was finding the talent in an already booming economy where everyone was competing for the small pool of available labour.
If anything, since Covid-19 the need for additional people has grown. The surge in demand for employees to catch up with the pandemic backlog of work or meet new challenges has been insatiable.
The pandemic offered a rare chance for some to reflect on their careers. For those of a certain age, perhaps it opened the path for early retirement. For others, it was a unique chance for a change in direction.
That process has left a void. So, where are we going to find the people to take up the jobs that we need to fill?
Working from home reduces the opportunities for women to engage and interact in informal work occasions
Welcome to WFH
There is not going to be a sudden burst of additional labour migration to fill the current gap, so surely encouraging more women into full-time work is the key. Does the adoption of working from home and hybrid or flexible hours offer the prospect of encouraging more women into the workplace, while also narrowing the gap between the participation rate between men and women?
Unsurprisingly, there are mixed results from various studies that have taken place over the two years of pandemic lockdowns into whether working from home (WFH) has been a net benefit to women. Much of the research focuses on those already in the workplace.
It’s also been demonstrated that women were more likely to be employed in sectors that were affected to a greater extent by restrictions, which may have actually made participation rates worse.
We do know that women are likely to suffer by taking time out from their careers at key stages to have children. Working from home may ease the pressures faced by many to maintain the balance between work and home commitments.
The downside is that it also reduces the opportunities for women to engage and interact in informal work occasions in the office, thereby potentially limiting advancement prospects.
Deloitte’s Women at Work report found that 60% of female hybrid workers felt they had been excluded from meetings, while almost half worried that they did not get the exposure to leaders necessary for career progression. Women also said they risked having colleagues take credit for their ideas.
Employers need to develop formal systems to bring more women into the workforce
Employers need to develop formal systems to bring more women into the workforce by taking advantage of the benefits that remote working and flexible hours bring. If WFH strategies can be implemented in an emergency in March 2020, we now have the benefit of experience and hindsight to design a work environment that encourages more women to either stay in their roles or attracts more into the labour market.
If there is a better policy to ease supply shortages, it is hard to find one. The gap between the number of men and women in employment narrowed to its lowest level just before the pandemic began. There is now a real chance to bring it down even further.