End of the Ideal Worker?

Date Posted: Wednesday 11th August 2021

Written by Caroline Waterworth

Workplaces often favour employees with fewer outside responsibilities. As a result, these employees generally succeed at a faster pace than co-workers as they offer what is usually an unrealistic and luxurious ideal. It is, though, an enticing alternate reality for bosses and ripe for sowing the seeds for promotion and progression. However else the pandemic has gate-crashed “normal”, one of the most obvious changes was the requirement for many workers to trade the office for the home; the workplace became regularly interrupted by pets, children and deliveries and the false demarcation between life and work crumbled.

Those that were fortunate to be able to move to a working from home model were all experiencing similar interruptions. And as employers finalise plans for returning to the office, how will employers embrace the positive opportunities brought about by unprecedented and accelerated workplace disruption? The pandemic has dealt a body blow to the “ideal worker”; can the return to the office kill it off once and for all?

Joan Acker, the American sociologist and a lead figure in the second wave of feminism, coined the term “ideal worker” when considering why the balance within senior decision-making groups remained heavily tilted towards men. Acker wanted to know what underpinned the male-dominated office hierarchy which meant women stepped away or failed to secure promotions at the same rate.

The “ideal worker” can leave the complexities of home behind, swapping in the solitude of the commute and the focus allowed by physical presence in the office. For at least eight hours a day, they can often act as if there are no other calls on their time. No troublesome family dental appointments, deliveries taken in by kind neighbours and the work-life balance achieved for “ideal worker” parents by the annual sports day and carol service pilgrimage.

During Covid, new homeworkers have had to adapt to a new home-life blend; work and hobbies co-exist, often into the evening. Many employees have reported benefits of this approach in terms of mental health and family dynamics. The erosion of this separation has not worked for all, but home working has temporarily allowed working mums to work on a more equitable, compromised environment to their male counterparts as all of the additional networking has fallen away and peers and colleagues have become aware that everyone does have a life away from the office. This is now no “ideal” for anyone.

A 2020 Survation survey for WBG’s Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy found that 79% of people agreed that women and men should share caring tasks for children more equally. This is supported by annual surveys from Working Families which show time after time that fathers want more flexible working arrangements too in order to be more involved with caring for their children. Whilst the distribution of childcare is still skewed towards the mothers, a consequence of Covid-19 lockdowns is a shift towards equality where both parents had jobs that could be done remotely.

The office return presents an opportunity for senior leaders to consider how they can reinvigorate their approach to employee diversity and mental wellbeing. Progressive organisations can harness the unexpected opportunity for acceleration of flexible working through equality of recruitment policies, the retention of women at senior levels and subsequent reductions in the gender pay gap. The bottom line is that businesses do better when their work-force is more diverse. Maybe it’s not such a difficult choice…

A recent UK poll showed that 69% of the mothers surveyed wanted to work from home at least once a week in the future but only 56% of fathers did. Whilst it is encouraging that more than one in two fathers want a hybrid approach, even the realisation of this disparity is likely to result in continued gender imbalances across senior positions. As an illustration, if we translate this poll’s outcome into a fictional workforce of 200 staff – all with childcare responsibilities with a 50/50 split of women and men (ie. 100 men and 100 women) – it would equate to 56 fathers working in a hybrid fashion and 69 mothers. In terms of available “ideal workers”, it means 44 men expect to be in the office full-time but only 31 women – ie. in excess of 25% more men than women would be physically present in the office. The opportunity remains for more men than women to present themselves as “ideal”, reinforcing the pre-pandemic disparity.

How then can employers continue to implement policies that promote workplace equality?

First, senior decision makers in organisations, both men and women, need to use and be seen to use the full range of family-friendly policies. The introduction of Shared Parental Leave recognised the importance, at a governmental level, that shared care is important for children and family units, yet the implementation of the policy effectively ensures minimal take-up; with father’s entitlement depending on the mother’s own entitlement to maternity leave and with the low levels of pay, few fathers can afford to take it up. Rates are consistently below 10%.. Incentives and positive role models are needed to encourage more men to make use of the policy. A revised policy would encourage widespread take-up which, in turn, would help to shift the perceived norms around the ‘ideal worker’. WBG briefing provides detailed information about the proposed changes to Shared Parental Leave.

Secondly, the deployment of hybrid working needs to reflect the fact that men are more likely (in percentage and absolute terms) to attempt to return to the office. As organisations offer hybrid arrangements (ie. home based/remote and office working), managers need to consider how they can prevent huge imbalances in office-based visibility. In turn, how do they ensure equality of advancement opportunities for those who opt to work predominantly from home? If people are given a free choice, it appears that men are likely to revert to “ideal worker” mode. This would have a long-term impact on diversity within the workforce and gender inequality in the labour market would become ever more entrenched.

Thirdly, as employers shape the work of the future and the return to the office, organisations should support networking activities that fit into the workday and allow for mixed gender groups. After-work drinks and golf days should no longer be considered inclusive networking opportunities.

Covid-19 lockdown has presented us all with a different way of doing things and blending work with life as well as moving us a step closer to breaking down gender expectations around roles and responsibilities within the home. Employers have an exciting opportunity to shape our return to the office and kill off the “ideal worker” once and for all.