If the second half of the 20th Century was the “age of equality”, then what does that say about the era we’re currently in? Especially when there’s still so much work to do before differences are truly valued in organisations.
According to diversity expert Heather Price from Symmetra, what we’re now experiencing is the “age of equity”. We’re legislated against overt discrimination in the workplace (although there’s still some work to do), now it’s time for organisations to ensure our differences are acknowledged for the benefits they can bring, and company policies are adjusted in order to accommodate the differences that come with a diverse workforce.
“Equity and equality are two terms that are used interchangeably and yet they mean fundamentally different things,” Price told an audience at an Ambition recruitment breakfast in Sydney.
“Treating people equally means treating people exactly the same. But treating people equitably means recognising what those differences are and making quantum leaps to meet those differences.”
That means dispensing with a monolithic workplace culture to create structures and policies that promote inclusiveness.
So far, the expectation of equitable treatment in the workplace has led to more companies offering flexible work options. It’s a provision that covers a broad range of needs for a diverse workforce – needs more encompassing than the “working mothers” group.
Companies are doing this because they recognise flexibility is an enticing incentive, seen as a favourable provision by everyone from Gen Y employees to soon-to-be retirees, students, those with caring responsibilities, and individuals looking to pursue extracurricular activities outside of work.
Indeed, as Price noted, a recent Mercer study found the demand for flexibility has become a leading incentive for those seeking a new employer, coming from all quarters of the workforce, not just working mothers. Meanwhile, when 60,000 global execs were asked by Regus if their companies were more productive thanks to flexible work, 73% of those in Australia surveyed said ‘yes’.
Such incentives might be popular, but according to Price the uptake of flexible work does not reflect its perceived attractiveness. She said she’s encountered some of the most cutting edge flexible workplaces around the world with plenty of options on the table, but very few such options actually being used.
So we want flexible work. We’re being offered it. But we’re not accessing it. Why?
Price suggested three reasons. Firstly, jobs are going “part-time” but they’re not being redesigned to ensure the employee isn’t being overworked and underpaid in the process. We’ve all heard the horror stories of colleagues cutting back to four days, only to find themselves working an extra two hours a day in order to make up for the day they have “off”. Job redesign is a skill, Price said, and may require training and/or experienced professionals to effectively reshape positions.
Secondly, employers are still placing too much emphasis on face time in the office. Be present and you look productive, something that leads to the “leave a jacket over the chair” mentality when leaving the office at 5pm to give the impression you’re still around. Employers must focus on outcomes in order to make flexible options attractive. Sitting at your desk is no longer good enough.
And, finally, Price suggested a lack of flexible career paths may be hindering the uptake of flexible work. If ambitious employees see no senior leaders within their organisation working flexibly, they’re likely to believe flexibility is a career limitation. Meanwhile putting jobs into two buckets – full-time or part-time as they’re frequently advertised – further promotes the idea that the more “flexible” option will limit one’s career. Price suggested all jobs should be considered open to flexible working elements.
If we’re truly entering the age of equity, then we have some significant adjustments to make. A good start would be to ensure that flexible work options are not just on the “nice to have” shelf, but also an integral part of a company culture.