A global law firm’s post-pandemic plan to compulsorily limit office attendance will stop women working remotely suffering from present colleagues receiving better assignments, a seminar heard last week.
Farmida Bi, who is the Europe, Middle East and Asia chair of Norton Rose Fulbright, revealed that the hybrid working policy, which was announced in draft before Christmas, will make it compulsory to work two days in the office and two days at home, with the location of the fifth day left to employees to decide.
Speaking at a Law Society event on gender equality after the pandemic, Ms Bi said that most staff favoured the arrangement, but also that it would prevent gender apartheid that favoured men at the expense of women.
The firm wanted to ensure that women with caring obligations in particular were not prejudiced by the new structure.
“We are concerned about creating different kinds of people in the firm: those who are always working from home who perhaps miss out on the networking, the teambuilding [and] those who are always in the office… getting the choice transactions.”
Speaking personally, Ms Bi cautioned: “I worry about the person who feels they are better off at home because they can manage their family obligations and are missing out on a lot of the career building activities that go on in the office.”
She stressed the firm would monitor outcomes from the policy “to see how things work out, how people are managing, how is our technology holding up, so that those who are tuning into meetings have the same feeling of being present as those who are in the room”.
Former Law Society president Christina Blacklaws, who moderated the event, said it was vital to avoid a situation where “we might be inadvertently moving towards a new type of presenteeism”.
However, another participant, Tamara Box, Europe and Middle East managing partner of Reed Smith, said that while she agreed that the pandemic has “done a lot to undo progress for women”, her firm would not be specifying percentages of time its staff should spend at home or in the office.
“We think it’s important to articulate as a business and as colleagues that we owe it to each other and to our clients to be together during our work week more often than we are apart.”
She nevertheless acknowledged the danger that women might suffer under the new regime: “In the context of worries about presenteeism, we are going to have to think harder about how opportunities are in fact allocated.”
Ms Box added: “My slight optimism around this is that funnily enough it’s as many of the male partners who don’t want to come into the office as it is many of the women across the board.
“So the assumption that all the people with work to hand out to those who need it will necessarily be in the office may not play out that way.”
Ms Bi suggested that, anecdotally, this was not currently the case. Last week she had spent her lunchtime with colleagues at a restaurant and noticed that “maybe nine out of ten of the people there were men”.
Meanwhile, Dana Denis-Smith, chief executive of Obelisk Support and head of the First 100 Years project, said she supported routinely tailoring work flexibly to individuals’ requirements.
“It’s time we moved into individual job design so we personalise the employee journey just the way we like to have options when we buy from Amazon and all the other things we do as consumers…
“We need to be way more granular in the way we engage with our employees and their aspirations… We ought to enable people to have a real choice in how they work and sustain that.”