Why the return to work is a diversity issue

As the UK moves to step three of easing lockdown restrictions, many businesses are considering how work will work in future and coming up against difficult issues around inclusion


Slowly but surely the UK economy is opening back up. Cinemas have flung open their doors, restaurants are welcoming us back inside and we are no longer limited to choosing five friends to meet (outside at least).

Of course, this opening prompts questions about work. For many, particularly office-based workers, the past 15 months have meant a switch to working from the kitchen table, the end of the bed or - for the lucky - a home office. 

Yet as thoughts turn to a return to the office of some kind, what should this return look like? And how can it be made to work for everyone?

These are questions Bruce Daisley has been mulling over. The former Twitter vice-president is now a leading thinker on the future of work, having published two best-selling books and run a chart-topping podcast - Eat Sleep Work Repeat - on making work better. 

He is concerned, however, that not enough thought is being put into the diversity and inclusion aspect of the big return to the office. 

The diversity issue

The data suggests his concerns are not unfounded. A recent UK poll of 2,300 business leaders, managers and employees by the Chartered Management Institute found that 69% of women with children want to work from home at least one day a week after the pandemic. Among men with children, this figure drops to 56%.

This poses a problem if most of the people making the decisions about a return to work are men. And this is likely to be the case, given that there were just 13 female CEOs in the FTSE 350 in 2020.

There is also data that shows male-dominated companies are more likely to insist on workers going back to the office. Data from Australia, which is ahead of the UK in terms of returning to normality, shows there is a correlation between the percentage of women employed in a company and how flexible their working policies are.

For example, at consulting company EY, 46.3% of the workforce are female and it offers full flexibility. At the other end of the spectrum, engineering company UGL offers no remote working and just 15.2% of its workforce are women. 

In the UK, the most vocal champions of returning to the office have been the likes of Goldman Sachs, Barclays and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

The businesses that do this well will have little rituals, almost family quirks; they’ll have their own-work based version

“What you hear anecdotally from people in banking or engineering - these big machismo-filled businesses - is that they’re all back to the office on 21 June [when the UK is scheduled to move to the final stage of easing coronavirus restrictions]” says Daisley. “This moment we are all looking forward to as a celebration, they are saying that’s the day they are back at the office.”

“The data paints a very vivid picture,” he adds. “It suggests this is a diversity and inclusion issue.”

Daisley recalls an old boss of his who would insist on holding meetings at 7.30am when things were difficult, assuming that because he could make the meeting others could too. 

“That is all about beating your chest and demonstrating you are the alpha. He’s saying, ‘I can be here at 7.30am’,” explains Daisley. “What you miss in that is the pandemonium it creates if someone has shared childcare responsibilities or a longer commute. It effectively says, ‘not only are you having stress at work, you are having domestic stress as well.’ Hopefully we can push back a bit on those things.”

Re-examining the office

He believes the pandemic has started a “pincer attack” on the office. On one side, there are workers who have found they can do their job effectively from home and now baulk at the idea of spending time and money getting into the office five days a week. 

On the other side are business leaders sensing an opportunity to cut costs. This was already happening, with research before the pandemic finding that 43% of businesses allowed staff to split their week between the office and home. 

Now many are re-examining their office space and thinking about how it can work better for them and staff. Daisley talks of a company he did some work with (he can’t name them) who wanted to modernise their culture. It took lockdown and working from home to realise it was the office building holding them back. 

That culture question is one that has been asked repeatedly over the past few months - how to create a sense of belonging and shared values when workers are not side by side, at desks, in an office every day. 

Daisley doesn’t think being an office all the time is necessary to create this culture, though. He points to the limited amount of time we spend with friends but the strong emotional connection we have with them as a reason why businesses should be prioritising quality over quantity of time together. 

“We can have a vivid and emotional connection with people we spend three hours with on a Saturday evening, so it’s about the strength of the connection and the degree of authenticity, he says. 

When we look at the evidence, the one group who have missed being in the office every day is bosses. If you allow all the bosses in your organisation to make the decision you are unfortunately missing the fact that everyone else doesn’t agree

“If you look at the businesses that do this well, they will get people together to create moments of connection, so that when people are sitting on their own in their house they can feel part of something. Rather than getting people in an office silently replying to emails, they will create moments of connection.”

He points to the work of Casper ter Kuile, who wrote a book - The Power of Ritual - that explores how religions work through ritual and getting people together and how that can be applied to other areas of life. 

“The businesses that do this well will have little rituals, almost family quirks; they’ll have their own-work based version,” he says.

The office return

For those businesses considering now how the world will look as we reopen, Daisley has some advice. First, he says, there needs to be as wide a representation of people in the room making the decisions as possible.

“Make sure there is a wide representation of people in the room. A lot of people have felt liberated from having to keep up this pretence of being able to do everything. Not having to commute in two or three days a week has allowed some people to focus on their job more,” he explains.

“When we look at the evidence, the one group who have missed being in the office every day is bosses. If you allow all the bosses in your organisation to make the decision you are unfortunately missing the fact that everyone else doesn’t agree. Make sure there is a plurality of opinion.”

He also cautions against making too many decisions early on before new ways of working have been tested. Having missed so much human contact over the past year, many people are keen to get back to the office but may find they would be happier working at home more often as this need fades, for example.

“The critical next thing is this is a time for experiments not decisions. Most of us probably feel we know what it would be like to work in a balanced hybrid environment but we don’t fully know,” he suggests.

“Don’t jump in, it’s time for experimentation and we’ll learn a lot through that. There might be different modalities – different groups who want to work in different ways. 

Finally he recommends learning from other companies. Most have been so focused on getting through the pandemic they have not had time to speak to other business leaders and learn what is working (or not) elsewhere.

“I hear so many people say to me, ‘I’m in back to back video calls’ but once we start meeting up with friends again you might hear ‘oh it’s not like that at my work, we have whole days without video calls’. And people might want to change to that. At the moment business has not even had the opportunity to compare what works and what doesn’t. We need that.”