How to harness flexibility and drive inclusion

Diversity and Inclusion – the new opportunities and challenges

With more and more companies moving to hybrid working, HR consultant Mary Budd, explores the challenges and opportunites it presents around diversity, inclusion and belonging.

There have been many dire warnings from business and legal organisations about the threat to agency Diversity and Inclusion policies of adapting hybrid working models. The risks are real. If we get it wrong, and simply revert to the ways of managing people that were usual before the Covid Revolution, we risk setting back progress rather than making it. The IPA census shows that 85% of member agencies are adapting hybrid working practices, but without careful thought there could be problems.

‘In-groups’ and ‘out-groups’

One of the dangers, which some of us have already noticed, is the formation of ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’. Some people rushed happily back to the office as quickly as possible and come in almost every day. It seems to me to often be younger people with no family responsibilities or mobility issues, those living in cramped accommodation and sociable types who miss the craic.

Let’s not underestimate the power of being in “the room where it happens” in our industry. People who are regularly in the workplace are more likely to be part of spontaneous discussions - those meetings on the staircase or in the kitchen - and have better access to the boss, meaning that they are more likely to be noticed for promotion.

Those who continue to work mainly remotely, who in many cases include greater numbers of working mothers, the disabled and older people, could be left at a disadvantage, finding themselves a part of the ‘out-group’. Over time this could lead to them becoming unnoticed, left without a voice, or the ability to contribute or progress.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

The possibilities

If we fully embrace the concept of flexibility of location and working time, it opens up all sorts of possibilities for attracting and keeping a wider range of interesting people.  For older people – remember that only 6.5% of the agency population is over 50 and a shocking 1% over 60 – hybrid working offers a route to keep skills honed while keeping some balance with other activities. Flexibility is the factor most quoted by over 50s that would help them to work better, whether to support work-life balance, caring or health needs, or just to make work more sustainable. That means that knowledge and experience which might have been lost to the industry in more conventional times can be retained.

Travelling, long hours and unsuitable workplaces also used to limit opportunities for people with disabilities. Let’s also remember that flexibility and hybrid working are not synonymous. If you insist on everyone being in the office on certain days, whether they need to be there or not, that is not genuine flexibility. Offices are not great for everyone. For example people with neuro-divergent conditions such as ADHD and autism can find bright office lights, constant music, or noise difficult. The buzzy atmosphere beloved of many agencies can make working there nearly impossible for people with those conditions. Working from home gives them much more control over their working environment and makes for more happiness and productivity.

Harnessing the new flexibility to be more inclusive does, however, mean changing some of the time-honoured ways in which work is managed and developed. Here are six ways changes to help our industry be more inclusive:

  • Look at ways of assessing peoples’ work and contribution that are less reliant on being visible. Focus on outputs and targets rather than the way that work gets done. Does it matter if a great idea was developed in the bath?
  • If you don’t want to control access to the office directly, at least make sure that nobody becomes invisible. Continue some of the social and bonding activities that went on during lockdown. They are just as useful and important now. Teambuilding, training and storytelling are often easily adaptable to an online environment and keep people involved.
  • Embrace the technology and make sure that everyone is properly trained to use it, rather than just picking it up intuitively. New products are arriving on the market almost daily, but it is not always obvious how to use them best.
  • Is there any real reason why the working day has to be 9-6? During lockdown, many of us found that we could be even more productive early in the morning or late at night. This is particularly key for people who are caring for children. Many companies have adopted ‘core hours’ when everyone makes themselves available for meetings and calls, with other hours left up to the individual. It is also worth considering ‘quiet hours’ when nobody is expected to pick up messages.
  • People with physical disabilities, or health conditions that make them vulnerable to infection, often find commuting by public transport very challenging. Obviously, the older we get, the more likely we are to develop such conditions. If your agency is located in a pleasant rural location with ample car parking space, this may not be too much of an issue. However, most IPA agencies have offices in cities or other urban locations, and this fact alone may deter older workers from joining you. Consider staggering start and closing times on the days when people come into the office.
  • Above all, recognise that everyone is different and that one size rarely fits all. Ask people what they would like and need, and listen to what they say. We have a brilliant opportunity to open up our industry to a broader range of talented people.

We have an opportunity to drive change for everyone’s benefit. Let’s use it well.

Mary has been working as an HR consultant in the industry for nearly 40 years, and was the IPA's Employment Affairs Adviser for 15 years. She was involved in setting up the IPA's CPD programme, as well as serving as a CPD Gold and running the IPA's HR Knowledge Course.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 19 May 2022