Due to the disruption of traditional ways of working this pandemic, there has been increased interest in and uptake of flexible work. There also appears to be increased access to and even preference for hybrid work, which seeks an optimal balance of remote and in-office/onsite work. This brings both benefits and challenges for employers and employees. Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) of the Australian Government also shows implications for gender equality, as flexible and hybrid work have resulted in increased work participation and leadership among female employees.
On 9 December 2021, PBCWE conducted the Gender Working Group (GWG) Learning Session entitled “#WelcomeBackToWork: The Realities of Hybrid Working,” to discuss current trends of hybrid and flexible work arrangements (FWAs), including examples from member firms. Speakers were Andrew Rowell, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) Director, Investing in Women; Jenny Hans, Managing Director, Accenture in the Philippines; and Julie Christine Mateo, Assurance Partner and Head of Talent, SGV & Co. In addition, Ma. Teresita S. Cucueco, M.D., CESO III, Assistant Secretary, Regional Operations, Labor Standards and Special Concerns Cluster, Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) also discussed Philippine government pronouncements relevant to the new hybrid workplaces and flexible work arrangement practices and policies.
Hybrid and flexible work are here to stay. In the Philippines, Ms. Cucueco noted that from January to October 2021 there were 15,801 business establishments representing 867,797 workers that implemented various forms of FWAs, including 431 business establishments representing 61,448 workers implementing telecommuting. While this is a small sample of the 43.826 million working population in October 2021 based on the Philippine Labor Force Survey, Ms. Cucueco acknowledged that flexible and hybrid work arrangements contributed to job retention during the pandemic, and have a role to play beyond the crisis.
DOLE is looking closely at the practice of telecommuting as “the new normal work arrangement,” even conducting a rapid assessment of telecommuting practices prior and during the pandemic among 63 employers and their representatives (73% of the participants in the focus group discussion, notably, were female). “Hybrid work is inevitable; it is the future of work. Because of the traffic and the commuting time, it really might be a more responsive way to work,” said Ms. Cucueco.
The 2020-2021 data collected by WGEA—surveying private companies with 100 or more employees, representing 4 million of the over 13 million worker population in Australia—also found that 4 in 5 companies have a formal flexible work policy or strategy (more common among large organisations than small or medium ones), whereas those without a formal policy tended towards informal FWAs. Overall, more than 98% of employers offer their employees some formal or informal flexibility, with 65% of respondents saying that both women and men were “more likely to be approved for formal flexible working arrangements” during COVID compared to previous years.
The increased uptake bears out in other countries in the region: during his presentation, Mr. Rowell spoke of two case studies on flexible work in Indonesia and Vietnam, undertaken by the Indonesia Business Coalition for Women Empowerment (IBCWE) and the Vietnam Business Coalition for Women’s Empowerment (VBCWE), respectively. The Indonesian firm under study was the first local subsidiary of a multinational to implement flexible work in 2016 and exhibited a progressive expansion of the program that proved beneficial especially during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese case study, which involved factory workers and back office staff of a power firm, also showed a heightened demand for FWAs during the pandemic, with the firm now interested in proposing additional pilot sites.
There are proven positive outcomes tied to flexible and hybrid work. According to WGEA, flexibility results in improved talent retention and organisational productivity, as well as enhanced worker well-being. Similar outcomes were seen in the case studies. Respondents to surveys conducted by IBCWE, for example, cited a smoother transition into the pandemic and enhanced talent attraction and retention (employer’s perspective), as well as increased trust and improved work-life balance (employees’ perspective). Both management and employees underscored better productivity.
Flexibility promotes gender equality and inclusion. The shift to flexible and hybrid work has also resulted in opportunities for promoting gender equality. Anecdotal experience as stated during the GWG suggests that both women and men have increased dexterity in managing work and domestic duties through flexible and hybrid work. Based on the WGEA data, flexibility also has the potential to boost women’s workforce participation and provide equitable access to male-dominated industries and occupations, including in leadership roles.
Notably, men who have worked from home during the pandemic exhibit a greater appreciation of domestic demands and the value of flexible working, and their engagement in flexible work has the potential to change gender norms. “The data also shows an upward trend in the number of organisations reporting a target set for engagement in flexible working arrangements, including specifically for men, which is great, because it is promising to see more organisations aware of the important role flexible working has in challenging the gender norms at work and at home,” said Mr. Rowell.
Challenges were also discussed, most commonly that the shift has resulted in a blurring of work and personal boundaries, which must be monitored and managed. DOLE’s assessment not only spoke of the importance of clarified boundaries but also a well-formulated telecommuting agreement that covers requisite labour, health and safety standards, and data privacy risks, among other concerns.
The GWG served as a forum where PBCWE member companies could ask questions and share current practices within their organisations as the economy opens and people are asked to go back to their workplaces. The discussions were geared towards designing and implementing hybrid workplaces in the context of the needs of their employees not just as workers but with multiple roles in the home and community. Visit PBCWE to learn more on how to join the business coalition and take part in similar conversations.