Improving the post-pandemic workplace for women

Banks and credit unions are eager to get back to a traditional workday, but they risk losing some of their best people if barriers are not addressed.

As Labor Day approaches, there’s an understandable desire to return to business as usual, but financial services firms also need to address the weaknesses revealed by the pandemic, especially the experience of women. By doing so, companies can build a culture that supports gender diversity and strengthens their organizations for long-term success.

Banks have gotten a lot of things right in response to the pandemic. They quickly shifted much of their staff to remote working and established health protocols to keep employees and customers safe. The pandemic transformed both the workplace and the nature of work itself, with virtually no loss of productivity.

Yet for all this apparent success, many companies fell short when it came to supporting female workers, as their hard-earned gains in pay, advancement and skill development were lost in the pandemic. According to a World Economic Forum analysis, the pandemic has reversed progress on gender equality.

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Job satisfaction among women was severely hit by COVID-19, and today women are much less optimistic about their career prospects than before the pandemic. According to “[email protected],” a new Deloitte global report, three-fourths of women in the U.S. ranked their job satisfaction as good or extremely good before COVID-19, but fewer than half (43%) were positive on their job satisfaction today.

Increased household and caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic were the top reason for this sentiment. In addition, more than 60% felt less optimistic about their career prospects today compared to before the pandemic, and 30% are considering leaving the workforce altogether. Women of color felt less optimistic about their career prospects than women in the overall global sample.

Those statistics should alarm every C-suite and boardroom.

But while the pandemic exposed the barriers that women face, it also punctured some long-held attitudes that have kept them from thriving. An obvious one is the idea that workers can’t be effective if they’re working from home. The pandemic clearly showed people can be productive and maintain strong ties with colleagues and clients when working at home.

The 9-to-5 mindset is another persistent cultural norm shattered by the pandemic. Admittedly, the working day was no longer rigidly defined by these hours even before the pandemic, yet today organizations still tacitly expect workers to conform to it.

Of course, the pandemic had a way of extending the working day, which gave rise to the pressure to be available at any hour. In Deloitte’s survey, 64% of U.S. women felt their career progression would be adversely affected if they were not “always on.” This is 12 points higher than the global average and the top reason cited among U.S. women for not feeling like they can switch off from work.

Addressing the difficulties women are experiencing starts with building a more inclusive culture. In our survey, 34% of women in the U.S. said that to improve gender equity in the workplace, their employer should cultivate a culture of diversity and inclusion, followed by offering development opportunities for women (33%).  Women want better learning opportunities, flexible working options and an end to the culture where women are judged more by time online or in the office instead of the quality of their work.

Greater support for caregiving can help, too. Bank of America now reimburses up to $100 per day in an employee’s expenses for care providers, an effort aimed at helping frontline workers in customer service and operations. Two-thirds of those using the benefit are women.

Our survey identified gender equality leaders that are cultivating inclusive, high-trust cultures for women. Women in such organizations felt supported to balance work and other commitments, were confident reporting on non-inclusive behaviors without fear of reprisal, and were satisfied with their current career progressions reported higher levels of mental wellbeing, job satisfaction and productivity. They also plan to stay with their employer longer.

More financial firms are likely to join these leaders. Indeed, managing the changing nature of work is one of the major challenges facing the industry – and one of its biggest opportunities. In the years ahead, leading firms will harness technology innovations to adopt new models of work that are more inclusive, just and sustainable.

Financial firms are eager to get back to work, but without addressing the barriers faced by women, they risk losing some of their best people. It will be important to review the lessons learned from the pandemic and for institutions to chart a new course to leapfrog the competition in the war for talent.

Monica O’Reilly, a vice chair at Deloitte, leads the organization’s U.S. financial services industry group.