3 ways to lessen the impact of workplace inflexibility on women

Posted on: February 18, 2022Updated on: April 18, 2024By: Maliyah Bernard

Two million.

That’s how many working women, especially mothers and women of color in shift-based workplaces, had to make the impossible choice between family and career, downshifting or stepping away from the workforce entirely in the wake of the first year of the pandemic.

Covid has had a major impact on all our lives in various ways but it’s been impossible to ignore the ongoing serious and structural inequalities for women in the workplace. With limited or unreliable access to support structures like childcare, schools, family and friends to lend a helping hand, women lost a million more jobs than men. The ones that are working aren’t getting the hours they want or need with 25% working part-time despite having full-time availability. They’re also doing twice the unpaid domestic chores around the home.

Woman operating machine

It’s no surprise that women are working themselves to exhaustion and are 23% more likely than men to experience burnout.

In our 2021 State of the Frontline Work Experience report conducted in partnership with Arlington Research, the numbers told a similar story of gender disparity, with males reporting more job satisfaction, manager trust, pandemic support and career opportunities than female frontline associates.

But it doesn’t have to stay this way. There are levers you can pull to introduce support and flexibility into traditionally inflexible jobs that can have a significant and positive effect on the lives of working women.

During our AxoniCom LIVE 2021 conference, a session called The Great Flex: Shrinking the divide between frontline and corporate work experience, with our Chief Learning Architect, JD Dillon and Ben Eubanks, Chief Research Officer at Lighthouse Research and Advisory, explored different ways organizations can address and improve equity in the workplace when shift work and deskless jobs mean remote opportunities or flexible hours aren’t always possible.

1. Figure out what they really need to feel supported

Eubanks says it’s time to put an end to the guesswork and start going directly to the source.

“We’ve got to stop making all these assumptions and just guessing what people want, what they need, what skills they want to develop and assuming what career paths they want. We take for granted that we would never do that for ourselves. We want people to hear our voice, and we should be extending that same courtesy and respect to the people that work with us as well.”

Listening to your frontline and working toward a culture of two-way communication is the best starting point when it comes to addressing complex workplace issues, like gender-related disparities. Enabling collaborative communication, from HQ to the frontline, can help you understand when and where your efforts aren’t quite hitting the mark.

If your people are feeling stressed about their pay, relationships with their co-workers, mental health or overall satisfaction in their roles, these options could prove to be simple but effective ways to learn what they’re struggling with before it’s too late.

Either way, it’s going to take an active rethinking of what’s possible. Kimberly Jones, People Experience and Talent Center Leader at PwC and a single, working mother, offered some advice in a piece called “The secret sauce for keeping women in the workforce.

She points out that companies have to start “reimagining a workplace culture that supports everyone [as] a continual work in progress that requires ongoing self-reflection, listening to your employees and adapting to their needs.”

When you open the lines of communication with the women across your frontline, you’ll gain invaluable insight into what they really need to feel supported at work, making your efforts more impactful to their day-to-day experiences.

“We’re trying to predict the future or create the future of work using the same perspective or lens from the past or the way that things were,” says Eubanks. “But it seems like there’s a bit of a mindset shift missing when we think about the idea that everyone in our organization is going through these changes simultaneously, regardless of what type of job they have.”

“Flexibility is what your people define it as.”
Ben Eubanks, Chief Research Officer at Lighthouse Research and Advisory

2. Acknowledge that flexibility comes in many forms

Eubanks shared a story about how his first-ever job involved working with a punch press and how he could never take home a million-dollar piece of heavy machine to work “remotely”. But his employers were able to offer him other flexibility options that made him feel valued.

“They were able to flex for me in the way that I needed them to. And that’s my encouragement to employers to think about flexibility in this broader term.”

“It feels like we’re ignoring the people that do most of the work that gets done. We’re having these conversations about the future of work, but not asking how we can restructure some of these things and break some preconceived notions that we have to enable a more successful, more productive and more capable workforce.”

For roles that can’t implement work from-home or hybrid schedules, like manufacturers or delivery drivers, flexibility will necessarily mean something different.

“Flexibility is what your people define it as,” says Eubanks. “If you don’t know what they think, what they’re asking for, ask them to explain that to you. Tell them what they’ve got to deliver and what results they’re accountable for. But in terms of the how, allow them some flexibility in how those things get done, or allow them some freedom to work within the boundaries of their job without micromanaging them, if that’s possible.”

3. Widen the guardrails and trust them to do their best work

When workplace rules and processes are too rigid, qualified employees who aren’t able to fit within the narrow confines will be pushed out. Instead, “organizations should consistently assess and redefine what they’re offering their employees,” offers Jones. “It needs to be coupled with empathy, tone at the top and a wide range of policies and benefits.”

Eubanks advises offering more independence whenever possible to “help employees develop a toolkit of tactics and abilities to make decisions about how they do their job in a way that gives them greater autonomy and allows them to support the customer.”

Providing them with the resources, communications and training they need to succeed sends the message that you know they’re going to do the right things in the moments that matter. Eubanks says that too many conversations around flexibility are starting and ending at the concept of work-from-home, and it’s a missed opportunity for employers to develop a better understanding of what their employees need to succeed.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the impact of inflexibility for women on the frontline. Your people, and your organization’s needs, are unique and what flex looks like for your associates will vary. But being open to a more fluid concept of flexibility will help to welcome women back into the workforce.

“While a ‘flexibility for all’ mindset supports all employees, it’s especially evident that women need more support than ever,” says Jones. “When done right, flexibility can unlock future possibilities and strengthen the diverse makeup of our workforce—because no one should have to choose between working and having a family.”

These are not just pandemic problems; they’ve been building for a long time and a return to a pre-2020 frontline workforce is highly unlikely. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Everyone from corporate workers to frontline employees alike are rethinking what it means to do a good job every day. That’s a great chance to make changes big and small that can improve the employee experience, and enable the women in your workplace to see a place for themselves on the frontline.

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Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.

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