One in Four. This statistic has been top of mind for me ever since reading the 2020 Lean In Women in the Workplace report. This shocking study revealed that one in four women are actively considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workplace due to the Covid-19 crisis. With a disproportionate amount of child and elder care responsibilities falling on the shoulders of women, many are reaching their breaking points and contemplating a dramatic career change. We find ourselves on the cusp of a massive attrition volcano on the brink of eruption that would set the gender balance in the boardroom back 20+ years, one that senior leaders and HR departments across North America should be making a top priority to tackle right now. So what’s the plan?
Many companies are responding by introducing flex hours to accommodate employees who may be homeschooling children or caring for elderly or sick relatives. Some organizations are taking it a step further but allowing for job share arrangements or temporary (typically unpaid) leaves of absence. While these measures are helpful in the short term, it would be foolish to believe these things alone will prevent the mass attrition of women. Why? While well-intended, these measures do not remove any actual work. Employees end up working longer hours to focus on the same deliverables as before the pandemic. Or worse, the surge of incremental internal meetings, reviews, and deliverables since the beginning of Covid-19 has added more to everyone’s palate, aggravating the already heightened stress and anxiety employees are experiencing.
In the spirit of never wasting a crisis, companies should use this opportunity to systematically review where their people are spending their time and energy and the corresponding 1) business value 2) employee satisfaction associated with those activities. Organizations should ask: what percentage of the time are our people preparing for, attending, or following-up from low-value meetings and deliverables with little measurable business impact? How many hours per week are our employees spending in meetings where they are not active contributors or decision-makers? How much time are people spending preparing deliverables that go unread by the majority of the recipients? The answer to these questions might shock employers. And yet, these seemingly innocuous activities are contributing the most to employee anxiety, job dissatisfaction, and looming resignation letters.
Like birthday cupcakes left in the lunchroom, it’s simply a matter of time before any open spot in an employee’s outlook calendar gets devoured in 2021. How can companies reverse the current trajectory of internal meeting overload? For every new meeting that gets added to the calendar, what if one has to be removed? Consider a rule that only key decision-makers in a particular meeting are the ones who are invited to attend. And before hitting send on an Outlook invitation, employees must confirm that the meeting is not something that could in fact have been an email.
What would those changes look like within your organization? With less internal meeting time and low-value deliverables on everyone’s agenda, employees can spend more time on higher-impact, more productive, and meaningful activities. The type of work that not only improves the company bottom line but also improves job satisfaction, making it less likely for employees to consider leaving.
Will this approach prevent the predicted mass exodus of women? We’ll have no way of knowing unless employers take immediate steps to find out. What is certain is that if companies don’t dramatically change their approach to retaining talent during Covid-19, we will reverse decades of gender balance progress virtually overnight.