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Let’s ensure fairer teleworking

managing teleworking
  • March 08
  • Tags Leadership

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Prof Mark Smith Stellenbosch Business SchoolThis opinion piece was written by Prof Mark Smith, Director-Elect of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).

2021 came with new challenges for organising our working, studying, and our homes. New challenges that do not fall evenly between women and men.

We know from the last lockdown that the expansion of teleworking has helped many continue their working lives but it has bought work into the home for a larger group of employees. Managers have had to extend the trust to telework to employees who previously spent nine to five in the office and found, in many cases, that there was no decline in performance. Many employees, particularly women, have benefitted from a new level of autonomy over their working time and space but have also had to take on ‘’new” unpaid work around the house – tasks such as homeschooling.

“In South Africa, and around the world, women take on a much larger share of the unpaid tasks at home than men.”

This is something of a revolution in the way we work for many people, at least to paid work. Unfortunately, there has been no such revolution in the way unpaid work is undertaken, at least in most households. In South Africa, and around the world, women take on a much larger share of the unpaid tasks at home than men. This is the case even in the most egalitarian countries but South African men’s record of helping out at home is rather poor. The uneven balance of domestic tasks means that women face greater work-family conflict (work impacting on family life) and family-work conflict (family life impacting upon work) than men.

Telework is a double-edged sword. There are many new advantages for women and men. The extension of telework to employees previously excluded from telework has bought many more women into the realms of autonomy and trust over their work. Women have been able to avoid long and potentially unsafe commutes. Women have enjoyed new autonomy around how, when and where they work that has often been associated with higher-level, male-dominated jobs.

Organisations that were previously quite resistant to radical changes in their working arrangements have had to embrace new forms of working and to trust more employees to do their work autonomously rather than seeing presence in the office as proof of work. However, social inequalities have been exposed in terms of varying internet access, mobile data and adequate conditions to work at a distance.

“…cultural norms that reinforce certain caring tasks as women’s work mean that women have taken on more of these new educational roles.”

On the other hand, the extension of teleworking has bought new risks. Parents, mothers and fathers have all faced challenges of homeschooling their children and the media has many examples of exasperated parents keen for their young children to go back to school. However, cultural norms that reinforce certain caring tasks as women’s work mean that women have taken on more of these new educational roles. The research demonstrates that school closures impacted more South African women than men in their ability to work normal hours and they experienced a larger rise in unpaid childcare activities.

Furthermore, while many of us can work effectively at home and interact with our colleagues via Zoom, Teams or Skype, this is not an adequate replacement for many of the other important social interactions we have at the workplace. Some colleagues experience loneliness and isolation while others enjoy the new peace in order to concentrate and advance their work. However, telework reduces opportunities to interact, to develop networks, and to enhance are known as “social capital” – our professional connections that help us do our jobs but also provide opportunities for advancement and promotion. Since women are known to have lower levels of access to these networks, particularly high-value networks, teleworking risks adding a new barrier to opportunities for moving up the organisational hierarchy.

Also, the lockdown has led to other more pernicious risks. For example, extended periods with the whole family in the home has raised the incidence of domestic violence. In the UK employers have been asked by the government to be vigilant for signs of women at increased risk. In South Africa these risks are high, a nation that has a poor record in this area, and the risks exacerbated due to greater family tensions and insecurity linked to Covid-19.

So how do we take advantage of the positives of teleworking and minimise the risks for gender equality? Here is a five-point manifesto for fairer teleworking:

  1. Do not try for “back to normal” at the office. Women and men have experienced many of the advantages of teleworking and employers have had their eyes opened for new ways to modernise their working practices.
  2. Men need to be encouraged to do more around the house, particularly when unpaid tasks such as schooling are added to tasks at home. Men have experienced an increase in childcare tasks, albeit small, during the pandemic – this is a basis for continuing to build their share.
  3. The risks of work-family conflict are real and employers need to be aware of the potential consequences for health, burnout and performance. Managers can be role models in encouraging their employees to turn off (for example, by avoiding sending their emails on evenings and weekends) while also being aware of the risks of gender-based violence.
  4. The workplace is not dead but organisations need to rethink the role of the office so that employees come to work to collaborate and not just to be seen. The workplace can become an environment to exchange, to innovate and to build a network for women and men.
  5. Employers and government need to actively address the inequalities that teleworking has exposed for work and study – access to data and access to materials. These inequalities hold back individuals, the economy and society.

“The future is one where people may not always move to work but rather where we may move work to more people – let’s do this in a way that is fair for everyone.”

As with any innovations in the workplace, managers and employers need to take advantage of the new opportunities while mitigating the unintended consequences for their male and female colleagues and colleagues with different economic resources. The future is one where people may not always move to work but rather where we may move work to more people – let’s do this in a way that is fair for everyone.

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