July 16, 2024

The Great Breakup: SA women ditching inflexible workplaces

4 min read

First came the Great Resignation, and now we have the Great Breakup: where female professionals, executives and senior leaders unsatisfied with a complete 9-5, five days a week return-to-the-office are seeking greener pastures at more flexible companies, or opting to start their own consultancies instead of dealing with corporate inflexibility.

“The pandemic lockdowns, while stressful for women who had to balance working from home with looking after children and homeschooling, introduced the idea of a way of life where work and family can be balanced in a way that was out of the question pre-2020,” says Advaita Naidoo, Africa MD at Jack Hammer Global, Africa’s largest executive search firm.

“And now, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, with research showing a large proportion of these women are unwilling to return to in-office work full time, having to spend unnecessary time away from their families while commuting and only seeing their children for a very limited amount of time before they head to work and after they return.”

Naidoo says the trend has been developing in South Africa over the past three months, and was this month confirmed to be a global movement with the publication of research by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, called Women in the Workplace 2022: The Great Breakup – The Unexpected Benefit of Flexibility and How Companies Can Retain Women Leaders.

The Women in the Workplace report is the largest study on the state of working women in the United States, with 300 companies and 40 000 employees participating in this year’s research.

Outlining the main findings, Rachel Schall Thomas of LeanIn.org noted that:

  • Women leaders are demanding more from their companies, and they’re switching jobs at the highest rate ever seen, and at a much higher rate than men in leadership. 
  • Only 1 in 10 women wants to work mostly on site. Many women point to remote and hybrid work options as one of their top reasons for joining or staying with an organisation.

“So in contrast to the Great Resignation, which was more a global than local phenomenon, given that South Africans are more risk-averse in our tough job market and with our high unemployment rate, the Great Breakup is definitely also echoed locally.

“Women seeking greater balance in their lives are therefore not quitting their jobs, but rather seeking out positions which don’t require them to return to the physical office because of outdated mindsets on the part of company management.”

Naidoo once again warns that South African companies introducing mandatory full-time return to office directives therefore are at risk of losing top female talent, as well as being unable to attract women for future roles.

And as the talent wars heat up, and companies seek to ensure gender diversity, these companies must further contend with the fact that global companies are targeting female South African professionals for placement in remote positions, Naidoo says.

“With international boundaries no longer a barrier to sourcing top talent, global organisations with progressive remote work models are vying for South African talent.”

Naidoo says that while many South African companies have taken heed of earlier guidance and warnings regarding return-to-office mandates, many have not, and have sought to replicate the way things were pre-pandemic, with no real functional reason to do so.

“Companies are calling people back to the office with increasing frequency and we have now been seeing over the last three months that women are unwilling to readjust and turn their lives upside down again, and are just saying no. They are not breaking up with formal employment, as few can afford to do so, but they are breaking up with outdated workplace practices robbing them of personal fulfilment and the expense of professional dictates.”

Companies that value their top female talent and recognise the impact of losing them, or that seek to attract the best female candidates to fill vacancies, should recognise that flexibility is now a massive differentiator and a non-negotiable value proposition.

“Simply put, companies that don’t offer flexibility are non-starters for these women. It has become a key criterium and one of the first, if not THE first, issue that arises when negotiations start.

“Unfortunately, some companies still have the mentality that jobs are hard to find and people may have nowhere to go, but that is not true for female professionals and leaders. Opportunities for them are actually in abundance and they are in high demand from companies locally and abroad seeking to ensure gender diversity. That means SA companies must ensure they have a very specific strategy around attracting and retaining top talent in coming months and years – and a key component of this strategy will be flexibility.”

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