Advertising roles as flexible might not win over as many women as it did pre-COVID

A study for Zurich insurance suggested women are 20% more likely to apply for senior roles if the job offers flexible hours. The research - which was carried out by the Behavioural Insights Team, a government-backed think tank - found that this can help narrow the gender pay gap, as women apply for more senior roles.

Any policy that achieves this laudable goal is to be applauded. But the truth is that the Zurich story doesn’t paint the whole picture. Because it is not necessarily the case that offering roles that fit flexibly around family life, means "employers could open the floodgates to a much wider pool of untapped talent." Not in the short-term, anyway.

The study looked at Zurich job vacancies between March 2019 and February 2020. And that was before the pandemic hit the UK.

Having interviewed 36,000 adults in the UK on the topic of job flexibility and employer branding since 2016, we have just updated our research, post COVID-19. The latest study shows the importance of flexibility when choosing a new job - which has been growing steadily for men and women - has dropped away fast in the last couple of months.

In the pre-pandemic 2020 report, we showed 44% of women said job flexibility was one of the five most important criteria for joining an organisation. That’s now dropped seven percentage points to 37%.

Job flexibility is not even a top five priority for women when choosing a new job now. Before the pandemic, job flexibility was a top five priority: it was fourth and now it's slipped down to sixth. It has fallen behind location and pleasant atmosphere.

Other, previously successful, employer brands are also being challenged by the pandemic, forcing HR professionals to re-examine their propositions. Women tell us their top priority is now job security (64%, up 19 percentage points from 45% pre-pandemic).

Before the pandemic struck, their priority was work-life balance. Smart HR professionals would be well-advised to highlight job security now if they want more women to apply for senior roles.

Restructurings are also challenging employer brands, as employees who have been made redundant can move from being loyal members of staff to becoming laid-off brand saboteurs. Not only can that damage your chances of recruiting the best talent in the future, a negative employer brand can increase churn (LinkedIn suggests that a positive employer brand reduces staff turnover by 28%).

HR professionals conscious of the sort of damage this could do to their proposition should consider outplacement programmes when making redundancies - employees who have been laid off with outplacement support are less likely to become brand saboteurs.

According to research from the US, only 34% of businesses offering outplacement programs report lawsuits from former employees - whereas 42% of companies that did not offer outplacement services were sued. This is because participants who you have had to lay-off at least know you invested in them to the end. It says a lot about your business and your company culture that you take care of your employees, even when you have to let them go.

A great example is Airbnb. The pandemic forced Airbnb to reassess years of heavy spending on staff and make a 25% reduction in its employee base. It shared an open letter to stakeholders outlining how it’s helping employees who’ve been laid-off get back on their feet.

That’s reflected positively on Airbnb from both an employer brand and broader brand reputation standpoint. It’s bounced back from the depths of the coronavirus pandemic - and now preparing for the most anticipated US stock market float of the year.

Simon Lyle is the UK managing director of Randstad RiseSmart