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The Impact of Flexible Work on DEI

Flexible work has so many advantages. From improving workplace engagement and performance, to promoting a culture of balance and choice, flexibility is quickly becoming of prime importance for employees and employers alike. But what about its impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts? Does a hybrid approach to work lend itself to the creation of a workplace which caters to all?

Flexible work

During our recent SocialTalent Live webinar, we hosted a dedicated panel with a group of renowned global TA Heads to find out how flexible work is impacting DEI in their organizations. It was incredible to hear some on-the-ground insights, digging into the role data, feedback, and leadership plays in creating a flexible workplace that champions inclusion. Check out the highlights below!

Panel speakers:

Key Takeaways:

1. Remote work increases your scope for talent

Offering flexibility in where people can work from naturally expands both the diversity and size of your pool of talent. We’ve heard this from many sources, but Manjuri took it a step further for us, detailing exact increases OLX have seen. By offering remote opportunities for certain engineering roles, Manjuri told us that in Poland the number of female candidates rose by 24x, in India it was 43x, and Germany it rose 4x once they expanded beyond Berlin. “The year we went to a hybrid, blended work model, the number of women hires in product data and technology rose from 18.5% to 28% – these numbers have encouraged us to continue.

2. Being creative about what flexibility looks like

One of the biggest learnings from this panel was the understanding that what constitutes positive flexibility for one person, is not the same for another. “Flexibility is about giving people agency in their work and we should not assume that people want what we want,” Deirdre told us, it’s about listening to your employees and being agile and understanding enough to make changes that benefit. She told us an incredible story about how in one of Smurfit Kappa’s plants in Mexico, the number of female applicants to the organization was low and they couldn’t understand why until they went out into the community. The reason? The shift hours in the factory didn’t suit mothers who had to drop their kids off at school. And with a tweak to this design, the company saw an immediate increase in the number of women applying. “We need to explore, learn, fail and come up with the solutions that work for our people around the world.”

3. Technology can create equity

The force to be more remote has actually enabled some things that fit really well in a global context,” Cheree says, particularly in relation to time zones and language. Being in an office scenario limits the technology that can be utilized to bring everyone to the table equally. She gave the example of closed captioning, translations and transcriptions – all things that greatly aid workers for whom English is not their native language. The move to a more globalized approach to work has encouraged the use of tools to make these experiences easier and better. “Why would we go back to some weird conference phone, with three people sitting in a room excluding everyone else, without the translation, without all the other things. Just because those three want to feel good about sharing a coffee together? It’s not as effective.”


  • [1.04] Flexible work and caregivers.
  • [2.27] The impact of flexible work on women in the workplace.
  • [6.09] Flexibility is more than location.
  • [9.32] Technology brining international organizations closer.
  • [12.33] Leadership’s role in flexibility.
  • [14.26] Building trust and vulnerability.
  • [18.45] Feedback and curiosity.


Johnny Campbell:

I’m delighted to kick off our final panel and in this edition of SocialTalent Live, I’m really pleased to welcome Cheree Aspelin, Deirdre Cregan and Manjuri Sinha to the screen. I want to dive straight into our discussion about the impact of flexibility on workplace inclusion. Welcome all. It’s so good to have you here. Our audience are dying to hear these final views, so I want to get stuck in. I want to just make a point and then put it out to the group to respond. In Ireland, where I’m sitting today, where I’m from, if people didn’t recognize the accent, the number of women participating in the labor force rose significantly post-pandemic from pre-pandemic levels. It didn’t happen everywhere in the world and that improvement in Ireland certainly was widely attributed to the increase in remote working opportunities. So my question is, how does increased flexibility benefit potentially underrepresented groups and are we seeing these improvements across the board? Who wants to take that first?

Cheree Aspelin:

I’ll throw something out there that absolutely it helps for people who are underrepresented. I was looking at some research from a Harvard researcher, and this is just US based, but what if we change the context to say caregivers? And at this point, we’re not even talking just about underrepresented people benefiting, because in the US 73% of workers are likely caregivers. And so now we’re not just working to help a few, we’re helping to work the majority.

So that was interesting research for me and almost a bit of the semantics at which to take some things like to an executive team to say, “Actually the vast majority of our workers likely would need some flexibility, because the research shows that 73% of them are in this sandwich and raise your hand if you’re a caregiver.”. And then it becomes me, it becomes me. It’s not just, “Oh, that one woman over there who has a baby.”, it’s something that’s for all of us. So that was just an interesting dynamic to put into play, it’s so many times we think about these things is, “Let’s do the good for the few.”, and there’s actually a component of this that’s actually good for all and every everybody is or knows a caregiver.

Johnny Campbell:

I love that frame. Deirdre, Manjuri, what do you think?

Manjuri Sinha:

Yeah, I think Johnny, I loved what Cheree shared about this, expanding towards the caregivers and let me share some concrete numbers from the countries that we hire in. And a little bit of an interesting piece as well, we tried to experiment the remote model even before the pandemic. Our experimentation began February 2020, so we had looked at the talent insights and decided to go remote for certain engineering roles in Poland, expanding our footprint. And it’s interesting, when we took an average of the different countries that we hire in our talent pool, especially the talent pool for women candidates in engineering, which are the real core engineering roles of front end, backend SREs, went up by 43 times. And just to share some numbers as well, for example, in Poland we saw this going up by 24.17 times more female candidates. The ratio that we could see is six versus 145. 145 was the pool for one of the senior job descriptions that we had.

In India, the increase was 43.49 times, because we were only hiring in Gurgaon and we could spread across South of India, where we actually have more women in engineering talent as compared to the North of India. In Germany also, interestingly, the moment you go beyond Berlin, and we’ve seen this data, that we have a lack of talent, especially in senior roles in tech for women in Berlin, but the moment you expand, we saw that we could go from anywhere up to four times in the talent pool as well. So this has definitely, definitely increased our footprint.

We’ve also seen data from LinkedIn that says that you see the remote jobs, wherever you highlight it as a remote job, gets 50% more of all the applications on those remote jobs. And vis-à-vis, we also see insights where women and men have different behaviors when they apply to jobs, where there’s 16% less chance of a woman applying to the same job than men, especially because of the requirements on the job description. And it’s interesting, this increase has actually increased more women applying to those positions as well.

So we’ve also seen an impact on the time to hire. We saw a time to hire impact from 48, 41, sorry, 41 days. It actually went down to around 35 days and this helped us in spending more time on sourcing where we could look into those diverse talent pools as well. So it has really, really increased our footprint overall. We increased even in our percentage of hires. So we look at the year before that, we were around 18.5% women hires in product data and technology and the year when we went into this hybrid, blended work remote model, we actually landed up with a 28% diversity percentage. And these were really numbers that encouraged us to go on and continue with what we stopped calling as remote, but a blended approach to work and keeping it inclusive, as we saw really encouraging numbers.

Johnny Campbell:

I love that data. It’s overwhelming, in terms of business case. Deirdre, your business has a very mixed profile of talent. You’ve got very different skills, maybe different to perhaps our other guests here. Talk to me about flexibility as you’ve seen it, and particularly with regards to perhaps individuals that maybe wouldn’t have had the same opportunity before or what the benefit of flexibility, that you’ve seen in different ways in your organization.

Deirdre Cregan:

Yeah. Smurfit Kappa is a paper and packaging organization. We have 48,000 employees in 38 countries, from El Salvador to Lithuania and Poland. So very diverse. The vast majority of our employees would work on the factory floor or they’re working in a mill. So for us, flexibility is something that is… We’re really trying to work out what does that look like across our organization, but we’re working a lot with how we can grow the numbers of females in our organization. And one of our plants in Mexico looked at their diversity and it was not good. So they went out to the local community to understand why are more women not applying to work in Smurfit Kappa, because we provide good secure jobs in that market. And the reason was that our shift patterns were not suitable for them to be able to drop their kids to school. In many cases, these women were the primary or sole carers for their children. We were able to shift their shift patterns just a little bit and saw an increase in women applying in that plant.

So what we’ve got to do as an organization, because we are so diverse and we are across the globe and what works for a white Irish woman in Dublin does not work in other parts of the world, we’ve got to be really creative around what flexibility looks like for us as an organization. And that’s something that we have to learn. I was listening to David earlier and he was talking about leadership styles. We worked for years before the pandemic with our leaders, really getting them to sit more in their vulnerability, to understand the systems that they work in better, so that they can begin to work with the uncertainty that comes with things like flexibility in working, et cetera. Something that they weren’t always used to.

A lot of engineers, a lot of folks working in factory floors, where everything was much more predictable and maybe than it is right now. So we’ve got some really concrete examples of it, but the challenge we have as an organization is sometimes people look at it in a very binary way. It’s remote work or it’s everyone in the office. It’s not. It’s a bunch of different things in between and we’ve got to be creative and ask people. Flexibility to a large party is about giving people agency in their work and we should not assume that people want what we want. My 20-year-old self would not like to have spent all my time at home. That would’ve been zero work done, sharing a kitchen table with all of my roommates. So we can’t assume that people want the same things that we want. They have different needs. So we need to explore, learn, fail and come up with the solutions that work for our people around the world.

Johnny Campbell:

Most of our guests today have talked about a broader definition of flexibility and it’s come up in the chat quite a bit. Cheree, when we spoke a week or two ago, you shared with me some of the challenges in NielsenIQ, which I think is the same as Smurfit Kappa and OLX, which is to the fact that you’re a very international organization working across multiple time zones. So let’s park the place that you work for a second, talk to me about time and your experience of time and flexibility in NielsenIQ.

Cheree Aspelin:

Yeah, and I would even say I’m relatively new to NielsenIQ, but working previously in a global company as well, the idea, well, the force to be more remote actually enabled some things for us that fit really well in a global context. Here’s something that’s just really practical, but it hits on a few different levels. You’re working in a global context, so you’ve got time zones and you’ve also got language. When we were so minded towards having a meeting in an office, there wasn’t a technology that was being utilized that would facilitate some things in a way that actually brought everyone else to the table equally. When we moved to these global meetings, that we were having, that used to be based in the US, everybody staring at a conference phone and not even realizing that it’s 10, 11, midnight for someone in China. It’s garbled, you can’t hear it. We’re forgetting that someone is there.

When we moved to a completely virtual environment for these meetings, everyone’s got equal footing. And then you turn on, which we have closed captioning turned on here for this meeting, you turn on a transcription service, so everyone’s got an equal footing. Now you’re turning on a translation or you’ve got a transcription now, what’s happening. So for those who have English as their not native language, but are doing business all day in this, at 11 o’clock at night when their minds are tired, what a gift. And so there’s just things that were silver linings and of course we’ll never go back in some of these. Why would we go back to some weird conference phone, with three people sitting in a room excluding everyone else, without the translation, without all the other things. Just because those three want to feel good about sharing a coffee together?

No, the expanded experience and the views that we now have that can come into a meeting. I think also some other things just about having meetings, sending agendas ahead of time, keeping the meeting open, so that people can reply via email. That defference to this idea of not everyone is speaking English as quickly as you are. Cheree, you try to have this meeting in Chinese and see how well you do with sharing your insights. And so it brought us so many new ways to include other voices that to me, there’s no going back. Why would you ever go back to something that’s not as effective?

Johnny Campbell:

Manjuri, you shared such overwhelming data, but you and I have had conversations with other leaders, whose organizations do not still fully agree with flexibility despite overwhelming evidence. Why do you think that is? What is the blocker that’s leading a lot of, particularly senior level executives, to push back, require people to be on a certain time zone, work certain hours. Particularly in an office environment, where unlike Deirdre’s situation where you have to run factory shifts and of course you can be more flexible, where perhaps just really is necessary coding, designing something where it doesn’t really matter where or when you do it. Why do you think there is that pushback? Where is it coming from?

Cheree Aspelin:

Yeah, I think I said something a little cheeky. Well, maybe senior leaders need to get some friends, because it sounds like they’re lonely. Which isn’t very scientific. I’m not saying senior leaders don’t have friends. I’m a senior leader and I know I have friends. Well, I think I do. Maybe this is why I’m in this Zoom. But anyway, why digress? But it’s that proximity bias. It’s the old ways that’s locked in. Like Deirdre, I love what you said. Realize the generations in your workforce and the needs that they have for some people who are more senior leaders, the executives, people making decisions, they’ve been in the workplace for now 20-plus years. This is their social outlet. The physicality of this, it’s painful to have that stripped away. But this view of… I’ve walked through an office a few minutes after 5:00 PM, and somebody is trying to look like they’re doing something and you take a peek and they’re literally playing solitaire, but they’re getting credit for doing something, because they’re sitting in a chair. I mean, it’s ridiculous.

And so I think shifting the view towards what is true productivity, like in IQ, we don’t have a physical product. So the argument is very easy to make that, “Okay, well how would you even know if someone was physically sitting somewhere anyway, when there’s no physical product.”. When you’re in a manufacturing environment, it’s a different case to prove. That’s why this expanded view of flexibility to me is so important. But I’m thinking that what we’re seeing in the news now is some senior leaders are getting nervous. They’re retreating, they’re scared and they’re grasping at straws for, “Well, what’s another lever that we could pull here?”. And probably the easiest thing to grab is, “I need some people sitting at a desk.”.

Manjuri Sinha:

I think when you said, Cheree, getting friends, that is the thing, and I’ve read about this, it’s called the lonely leader syndrome.

Cheree Aspelin:


Manjuri Sinha:

That is paramount. It comes from a place of vulnerability. It comes from a place where leaders are not very comfortable in sharing that vulnerability with their teams and not all leaders are. Let’s face it. I think 9 out of 10 leaders would not be very comfortable sharing that vulnerability with their teams saying that, “Hey, this is my first time I’m doing this. Yes, we are in distributed setups.”, et cetera, et cetera. There’s also a lot more work to be done. Even in my personal experience, I’ve led distributed teams in the past with my experience with Accenture and with OLX, of course, being in 30 markets, et cetera. Different time zones of Latin America, US, India and Indonesia, et cetera.

It’s interesting, because when you get into this hybrid mode, there is a lot of work that you need to do. You need to really know the people. If you have one hour, 60 minutes of your one-on-one calls in on a weekly basis, that I have with my directs or heads of TAs and employer branding in different areas, I would spend those 20, 30 minutes, especially in the beginning of the pandemic period, to get to know the person much better. I had practically just started in the organization three months before the pandemic hit, so that connection for me really required work. Once you have that connection sorted out, it becomes easy. And it was only after probably two years that I got to meet my team face-to-face, when travel was allowed and vaccines were there, et cetera, et cetera. And it became easier once you had that one offsite and you spend some more time. You could get rid of your inhibitions, because of couple of wine glasses!

So that becomes easier. I think that’s very difficult for certain leaders and their leadership style that they’re not ready to let go of. That’s one. That’s a lot to do with the style and the ego. And the other thing, Johnny, I feel is the loud noise that we hear from around us. At the moment, we see a lot of these aspects of being bootstrapped, cost aspect coming through, not enough profitability, and all this is somehow being also pegged on the remote work and lack of productivity. It is completely contradictory to the data that we saw. We saw the data during the pandemic, when companies and organizations went into remote mode without much training. We saw productivity actually going up. All these companies were doing well, begging for growth, hiring more, et cetera. Most of the tech organizations were. With the loud noises and the folks in these organizations are trying to peg it on the remote work to really solve the black and white problem of bring people back to office.

But that’s what we heard even from our speakers earlier, that’s not the black and white. We need to go on to a blended approach. And that’s very important, because when Deirdre also mentioned earlier, that we need to start listening to people. What is working with them? What is not working? What tools do the leaders need? Be open to experiment, keep a check on the pulse of both the leaders and the people. And we heard earlier, none of us have practice. We are still living in a very never abnormal state. We are living in a ever-changing circumstance in the tech world, with all the banking and fintech impact that is happening right now. This will keep on changing. We need to be super agile and be open to experimentation. Black and white saying that, “Hey, everybody come back to office.”, or, “Everybody go for remote.”, that is not the answer to this question.

Johnny Campbell:

And Deirdre, if I can take that and ask you, considering all the data from our survey results, from what everyone said here today around all the great benefits in attracting talent, retaining talent, engaging talent, when you look as a D&I leader in a large international organization and you see the correlation between flexibility and all these good things, what do you think are the winning arguments? Is it that blended approach, it’s all of them, it’s the fact that it hits everything, that helps you change practices, change mindsets? Or what do you find to be the killer kind of outcome, that you will always persuade people to be more inclusive or go with the inclusive option? Is that a thing, do you think?

Deirdre Cregan:

I don’t think it is. I think for us, we are an evolving organization and it’s just constantly working with the curiosity of our leaders. I don’t have all of the answers and encouraging them to help their teams tell them the answers. One of our leaders during COVID, he was running a plant and there was a COVID outbreak, so there was a serious issue and he was going to have to run this plant with not everybody there. And one of the big things he did, which he would not normally have done, was normally he’d go in and say, “Here’s how you fix this. Here’s how we’re going to do this. You’re going to do split shifts.”. And he went in and he said, “I don’t know what to do. What do you guys think?”. And they said, “Well, we’re glad you asked, because we’ve already worked this out.”.

It’s a plant of 300 people. And that’s behavior leaders have to learn. They’ve got to learn it the hard way. It’s the curiosity of creating a culture where those types of conversations can happen. And we’re learning. I’m not suggesting in any way that we have this wrapped, but the more we do that, the more that the business, themselves, are able to come up with the reasons why they want to do this. That plant in Mexico, I never asked them to do any of that. They know that they’ve got incredible people around them. They want to make an impact in their community. They know that employing more women has an opportunity to make more impact in their community. So they did that all by themselves. So I very much see my role as creating an environment where, from a leadership perspective, I give them the space to do the things that they need to do locally.

So there is no silver bullet on it. It’s creating a culture, an environment where the conversations can happen for me, because we’re never, as an organization, going to have one answer for it. It’s never going to happen. We will always have a very different way of doing it, not just because we have a largely manufacturing plant-based culture, but even within our cultures, even within the offices that we work in, we’ve got different views that we’re going to have to work on. So yeah. For me, that’s the fundamental of it. And it goes back to manager capability and leadership capability and constantly stretching that.

Johnny Campbell:

I love that. That, going to say, closing piece of advice, because we’re just at closing. But I got to put a question both to Manjuri first and then close on you, Cheree. When folks on this webinar or watching this recording are thinking about flexibility and policies around flexibility, but they’re trying to lead with a direction of equity in their organization. With that focus on equity, thinking about flexible policies, what’s your top piece of advice you want to leave with and leave our audience with? Manjuri, to you first.

Manjuri Sinha:

Yeah, I think what I’ll say to this is gather that feedback from your employees. Don’t assume. Example is our organization, we assume that there are more women working fully remote than men. Our first engagement survey actually gave us data that there are more men in our organization who worked all five days remote than women. So that’s an interesting input. And intersectionality, I think we heard earlier on this call, is what would be important or matters flexibility for somebody in Dublin, may not matter to somebody sitting in India or Indonesia, depending on the gender that they identify with or their responsibilities. Are they a caregiver, et cetera. So let’s not assume. Ask. Be open about the fact that we don’t know and be open to experiment.

Johnny Campbell:

Cheree, last word to you.

Cheree Aspelin:

Yeah. It’s happening live right here, and I just want to highlight Manjuri and Deirdre. I want the audience to listen in how they’ve been speaking as leaders in their own organization, because a lot of this conversation today has been about trust. And I can tell that you guys create trust with your leaders, that they can be vulnerable, to come to you and say, “I don’t know.”. And so then you can do what Manjuri just said. So you don’t know. Okay, well, let’s go ask the people. And so there’s so much of this. We get all wadded up about having a policy and it’s like the Maya Angelou quote; “People won’t remember what you said. They won’t remember what you did, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.”. And I’m looking at these leaders here on the panel with me, and I can only imagine that not only are you helping employees in your organizations feel like they’re being heard, but you’re helping leaders come to the place where they’re listening and they’re being okay with the weirdness of all that we’re in right now.

This isn’t going to get settled anytime soon. We’re just going to have to live in the weird. And so putting a hard, fast policy now day is so naive, in light of the fact that we’re going to have to flex. It’s a little cheesy to say it, we’re going to have to flex about flex. Even our definition of it. Probably for some of you, in this meeting today, you said, “Oh, I need to expand my view of that.”. Yeah, you do. And so just thank you, because it’s going to be in how we make people feel. And I’m proud to sit around the table with people who are doing that and taking the spirit approach.

Johnny Campbell:

Cheree, Deirdre, Manjuri, thank you so much for joining us today and thanks to the audience for joining us today and listening. We really appreciate your time.

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