Each year, the gender gap in senior leadership is increasing. According to professional services firm EY, the impact of women on the global economy over the next decade will be equivalent to that of China and India combined.

A recent KPMG survey found companies with females on their boards have achieved higher revenue growth, profitability and shareholder returns than those without. It’s important for boards to understand how to harness this opportunity.

Redesigning the traditional office

Historically, a person’s career path and seniority was tracked by their progression from cubicle to private office, with someone first seated on the edge of a heavy rectangular boardroom table eventually taking the power seat at the top.

The best companies today work differently. Individual workspaces have been replaced by partitioned open spaces like cubicles and more agile workspaces. Boardrooms have made way for smaller conference spaces often called huddle rooms.

This office set-up empowers people by allowing them to work from where they prefer, rather than where they are assigned. So the focus of workplace design is now on how to serve and connect people rather than merely to contain them.

Technology paves the way for flexible working

Technology has changed the composition of offices, how people work and helps facilitate better gender equity. It has enabled more companies to offer flexible working without needing to overhaul the office space. Providing flexible working options helps to keep valuable talent within the organisation for longer, and better staff retention provides higher productivity levels.

The advancement of technologies such as smart phones, broadband, instant messaging, collaboration using cloud computing tools and artificial intelligence are making flexible working possible.

We now have teams made up of those physically in the office, as well as part-time office dwellers and full-time remote employees. This works for many levels on the organisation chart, right up to the board of directors, who more often than not, are not all in the same location at the same time.

But flexible working leads to a range of different outcomes. Our global research shows almost two thirds (62 per cent) of the global workforce can take advantage of flexible working practices. The research showed Australia is one of the most flexible countries, with 90 per cent of companies offering flexible work.

However, 59 per cent of Aussies worry that working anywhere might lead to longer hours and 34 per cent believe they might be overlooked for a promotion if they work remotely.

The work-life balance adage

Employee demographics are also facilitating the advancement of flexible working. Employee demographic comprises an individual’s census characteristics, alongside their employment stage, drivers and goals. Examples include millennials, wellbeing warriors, working parents and baby boomers. Each stage shakes up the way they work and shapes their technology requirements and expectations to get the job done and meet KPIs.

Flexible working is also making it easier for parents to return to work sooner after having children. In an era of ageing populations it not only allows for improved co-parenting, but also for working family members to look after elderly parents or go to other activities to achieve work life balance.

Today, flexible working has evolved to include the concept of ‘anywhere, anytime working’. It’s about making your working hours as productive as possible, no matter your location of choice – a boardroom, huddle room, local café or airport.

The gender issue

It’s time for the flexible working conversation to extend beyond managing the needs of parents returning to work. It is time to consider flexible working equity for all, regardless of gender, family commitments or career stage.

Modern workplaces need to empower both men and women to embrace a work anywhere ethos, especially at senior levels of management. When you achieve a workplace culture where it is considered business as usual for employees to balance work with family, further studies, hobbies and other ambitions, it changes the dynamic of work and retention rates for all employees, regardless of gender.

However, there is still more to be done. Does this flexibility mean employees would need to work longer hours? Would they still be considered equally for promotion? How can people build effective networks and relationships, which are considered key elements to career success?

Providing the right work environment and HR support to empower a workforce to work from anywhere is one step towards breaking the chasm of gender inequality. Closing this gender gap opportunity is to the benefit of all, but there is more work to do.

Senior Australian executives acknowledge the opportunity and the importance of addressing the gender gap in senior management through initiatives such as Males Champion of Change and the Panel Pledge. Executives know encouraging diversity is important for business success.

This must be a focus for boards of directors, who should be spearheading initiatives to improve diversity in businesses. It comes down to diversity of experience and diversity of thinking that is ultimately demonstrated to be beneficial to companies.

Polycom’s executive management team comprises 36 per cent women. As part of the Asia Pacific senior management team, I attend regular business meetings with members around the globe using a combination of technologies.

Just last month, for example, we had a newborn baby asleep in her father’s arms during a business review with 20 people on video conference. No one thought the situation was unusual and business carried on as normal.

Had my colleague, a new father, been unable to solve conflicting demands in this way, we would have lost his insight and intellect from the meeting. Instead, he could participate while also participating in childcare responsibilities – a key element of advancing gender equity.

Embracing ‘anywhere working’

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of employed people who work outside the traditional office has dramatically risen from 20 per cent 15 years ago to 30 per cent today. But the right approach to flexibility will depend on the business.

Some companies want to have their staff on the premises, working together. Others have a business that lends itself more to people working outside, maybe coming in for a couple of days each week for collaboration; and then, at the other end of the spectrum, you have traditional businesses that are now based on the concept of ‘we are distant’ – for example some medical health services.

For ‘anywhere working’ to be successful, the right infrastructure is crucial – planning, equipment, technology as well as culture.

Leading by example

I’m often asked how I lead by example when it comes to encouraging anywhere working within my team.

My team is spread across Asia Pacific – from Australia and New Zealand up to China, Japan, southeast Asia and Korea and over to the west in India, and they are all empowered to work how and where they want thanks to our daily use of technology. Our adoption of anywhere working retains talented people, even if they choose to move cities and become a full-time remote worker. It also means I can collaborate seamlessly with my peers in Europe and America.

In some cultures, being in the physical office is still seen as important, but anywhere working means that with the right support an employer can be a model of the way forward, should they choose. The key is that rewarding people shouldn’t be based on office hours, but measured on results and contribution, while encouraging them to find that same balance that you want to achieve as a leader. Providing more flexibility in work location without compromising on business results can help us cross the inequality chasm – a business opportunity from which all organisations can benefit.