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The persistence of presenteeism and other nuanced nonsense

Written by Ann Francke OBE Wednesday 02 September 2020
Work is still underpinned by unspoken codes. We can’t truly tackle inequalities in our workforce without challenging these
anne francke

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted huge inequalities across society. The challenge facing business is to ensure more than ever that employment promotes equality and greater inclusion. To tackle some of the burning issues this raises, for the latest CMI Better Managers Briefing I spoke to Sally Penni, a barrister and the founder of Women in Law, and Dame Moya Greene, the former CEO of the Royal Mail and one of the founders of #MeTooPay.

Progress on gender and ethnic diversity

Sally and Moya agree that, despite progress, particularly at entry levels, far more needs to be done to encourage diversity especially at senior levels. “The issue remains progression,” Sally says. “Despite an improvement at management level, we still don't have sufficient women in senior roles.” Enforced flexible working as a result of Covid will exert positive forces, Sally believes. Her advice to business is to keep an open mind: “Think about the smarter ways to engage those people. Simply saying, ‘I just can't find them’ is an old argument, isn't it?”

It takes courage to be vocal and instigate change, Moya admits. “There's a huge demand to conform. We are still very much beholden to a single group of middle-aged, white, well-educated males who make most of the progression, hiring and compensation decisions. It falls to women like me at the end of my career to be a lot noisier than a 40-year-old woman can be because there's just too much at stake,” Moya says.

The impact of Covid on equality

Women continue to bear the lion's share of the childcare responsibilities, and both leaders agree that quality, affordable childcare is essential for full participation in both society and the labour force. “The positive has been that homeworking has cut travel and some of the nuanced nonsense that both genders were spending time doing,” Sally says. Balancing the small gains we've made through working from home will benefit the progression of women, Sally believes.

But while a return to the office in some form is inevitable, a rethink of how we work is also required, says Moya. The leadership challenges that this throws up should not be underestimated, not least the management of teams working remotely.

Is presenteeism alive and well?

With CMI research suggesting that women will be disproportionately disadvantaged during that return into the office, what steps can we take to mitigate this? Both leaders share concerns that those employees more visible in the workplace stand to have an upper hand when it comes to career progression and promotion. In contrast, those who aren’t seen very often will be more susceptible to the large redundancies on the horizon. They acknowledge that presenteeism is still alive and well, with Sally citing how male legal colleagues would leave their jackets on the chair and go out for long lunches with mates and still be promoted because of their presenteeism.

“The positive is that homeworking has cut travel and some of the nuanced nonsense that both genders were spending time doing,” adds Sally. But will this fall by the wayside if the –largely male – office returners are perceived as more dedicated? “It's a kind of unconscious bias to assume that someone is not committed to their career if they are clamouring for flexibility,” Moya says. “When the time comes to make decisions about who stays and who goes, I'm afraid that old attitudes are going to die hard.”

We must strive not to make those discriminatory decisions because women will be casualties, Sally warns. She urges companies to use health and safety regulations as an opportunity to check in on employees and ask them how they feel. “We need to look at the wellbeing of those people who may be working in a box bedroom who would perhaps prefer a few days in the office in a safe environment,” Sally says.

Tackling unfair treatment on the return to work

There’s an art to complaining, bearing in mind that the distribution of power isn’t going to shift freely. “Always complain in your own best interest,” Moya urges. She recommends a practice run with a trusted co-worker to sense-check your grievances. Be specific about what you want and why the solution you propose is a good one and how practical is that to achieve? “You have to take a risk-based approach to it,” Moya says.

Be strategic and choose what's worth complaining about, Sally says. “The handbooks are not going to have all the answers because we've never been in a pandemic before.” She also urges against the temptation to bring unfair dismissal claims. “In the old days you would write a letter of complaint, stick it in your drawer and then sleep on it. I want to apply that to the law.”

Managing a digital divide, post-Covid

The technology departments of big corporations have shown that they can work fast to get people online and working remotely, but there is a business cost associated with it. Moya anticipates that increasingly there is a balance to be struck between how much flexibility employees want and how much flexibility the corporation can afford.

“I think managers need to be key players in this,” Sally says. “They are going to need to think out of the box about what technology is required, when it's required and how to manage face-to-face meetings.”

You can watch Sally and Moya’s conversation in full here.

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