As originally published in The Globe and Mail.

Stephanie Terrill, Business Unit Leader, Management Consulting, KPMG in Canada

Emily Brine, Managing Director, Firm Operations, Talent & Culture

While it's clear that working women – and working mothers in particular – have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, the normalization of remote work may prove beneficial to their lives going forward.

The pandemic took a toll on Canada's female workforce. Despite accounting for less than 48 per cent of workers, Statistics Canada reports women accounted for 53.7 per cent of employment losses between March, 2020 and February, 2021. This dropped the female participation in the labour force to 55.5 per cent in April, 2020 – down from 61.2 per cent in February, 2020.

StatsCan reports that almost a quarter of the workforce now works exclusively from home (compared with 7.5 per cent in 2016) and roughly 40 per cent of Canadian jobs can be done from home. Many of the women who have remained in the workforce have had to juggle child care and caregiving while working from home, sometimes without a proper workspace or technological tools. This lack of work-life balance has led to high levels of stress and burnout at higher rates than men.

Nonetheless, there is cause for optimism as we reimagine the world of work in a way that can benefit women. With a rise in hybrid workplace models where employees work at home at least part of the time, there will be fewer expectations to "fit in" to the corporate culture, and to look or speak a certain way – which, in a pre-pandemic world, disproportionately limited women of colour and women with disabilities. The disruption to old boys' networks and perception bias in office culture can benefit women. Indeed, KPMG's Global Female Leaders Outlook survey, found the proliferation of new digital communication and collaboration tools, alongside a growing talent pool afforded by remote working, may be a catalyst for gender equality.

Remote work has also helped to remove the stereotypes of presenteeism – where there's a bias toward rewarding those who are physically in the office – and places the focus on output over "putting in the hours." At home, women can more easily juggle various responsibilities and multitask, without the burden of a commute or dressing for the office, completing their work in the hours that suit them and giving them a productivity advantage.

Female leaders also have an "empathy advantage," which has been crucial for building and maintaining cohesive teams. Virtual teambuilding requires more effort and is more apt to be performed by women. In consciously reaching out to others to assess their professional and personal needs, female leaders are helping to assuage isolation and encouraging new, holistic modes of connection and communication.

This has been important in the tremendous job shifts we've seen because of the pandemic. Workers are seeing a chance to reinvent themselves, seizing new work opportunities or starting their own businesses, and many women are also seeking to change the terms of their work, such as better wages, a permanent increase in flexibility or reduced work hours for better work-life balance. The KPMG poll found women, at 53 per cent, were more confident than men, at 46 per cent, that they'd be able to attract talent and find the skilled help they need. In short, they are more confident in their ability to offer a better working experience.

How employers can build a better work experience

The new hybrid normal can help women further if employers embrace a future of work centred on flexibility and new modes of operation. More than that, actions that employers can take will benefit them as well. Such initiatives can include:

  • Beefing up supports such as more vacation, sick and personal days, and compassionate or caregiver leave. When women have more flexibility in the ability to attend to personal responsibilities – a factor that can be as or more important than salary or wages – employers can improve retention of valued employees often at lower cost and stem the trend of women opting out of full-time positions or the workforce entirely.
  • Shifting from "management by control" to "management by results" by recognizing outcomes rather than how many hours an employee puts in at the office. Women working remotely shouldn't be relegated to lateral career moves; they should still climb the corporate ladder to attain leadership positions.
  • Re-evaluating performance management to formally recognize work that has traditionally been unrecognized and is predominantly performed by women, such as office-keeping, DE&I initiatives and people management. This helps to boost morale and retain more women in the workforce so employers don't lose top talent who could turn out to be future leaders.
  • Having automatic promotion structures in which women can opt out rather than self-nominate. It's well known that men tend to do better at asking for raises and promotions than women. Instituting pay transparency as well helps to lower the traditional pay gap that favours men by reducing the ask gap. This will cement employers' reputation as less gender-biased and more equitable.

It's no secret that women have always had to juggle work with their personal lives long before the onset of the pandemic. They've needed to be resilient, resourceful and adaptable. But they've also wanted more flexible work hours, remote work options and other supports to help them create a better work-life balance. In the new hybrid, work-from-home normal, this will be possible.

But it will depend upon attitudes in the home, the workplace and in wider society continuing to shift as well. The organizations that embrace rather than marginalize those who work remotely will attract the top female candidates and provide an environment where they can be their best.

Creating a working environment that allows women to thrive is good management, good for the bottom line and good for our economy.

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work.

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