In the latest in our series of posts called Lessons from Lockdown, group of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion professionals met virtually to discuss how major project delivery organisations have had to adjust due to the Covid -19 pandemic; how these changes have created opportunities and challenges for the workforce; and the lessons that can be learned from this crisis.
Specifically, the following questions were addressed:
- What short term changes has your organisation made in response to Covid-19? How have individuals been impacted?
- Have organisational changes been applied equally to the whole workforce? Are there winners and losers?
- In the short-term future are you concerned that EDI will drop down the “to do” list of senior leaders?
- Are there any positive lessons to take forward into the “new normal”?
Most organisations reported a favourable response to the crisis with a number of positives:
- A significant increase and levelling in communication;
- A more visible concern for the wellbeing of staff with particular focus on those with caring responsibilities and those with mental health issues;
- Rapid and large-scale implementation of flexible / remote / home working;
- Formalisation of flexible working policies and the persuasion of sceptics
- Organisations “thinking of people in their entirety”.
There were some concerns that the particular working conditions during lockdown made some staff feel pressure to demonstrate productivity either with longer than normal working hours or by arranging back-to-back video meetings without taking proper breaks. Such practices were having a negative impact on the physical and mental health of staff.
There was concern that an organisational divide might be created between those able to work from home and those in front-line roles who were still required to maintain usual working patterns. Staff surveys reflected an initial tension which has been managed through clear communication from the top. Most organisations had found that “pulse” surveys to monitor how staff were coping through rapidly changing circumstances were an effective measure of wellbeing and a useful way to communicate concern. Although it was acknowledged that not all questions could be framed as “yes/no” when the answer is more appropriately “sometimes” – for example “are you feeling anxious?”
It was recognised that those with needs requiring reasonable adjustments in the working environment were not all able to replicate those conditions at home – some employers had allowed staff to take home necessary equipment or to purchase additional supplies.
It was recognised that working at home was not equally accessible for all staff. Those with challenges included those with significant caring responsibilities, with health conditions requiring shielding or those caring for people who require shielding, as well as those facing increased risk of domestic abuse. Refuge, which runs the national domestic abuse helpline in the UK, has reported a 950% increase in visits to its website compared to pre-Covid-19. And two-thirds of survivors responding to a Women’s Aid survey in April said violence had escalated under lockdown.
Whilst the crisis has impacted similarly upon men and women in similar roles in the workplace the expectations by some senior leaders has differed such that even where both parents are working, caring and home-schooling are considered to be mainly the responsibilities of mothers rather than fathers. One offline anonymous contributor to the discussion revealed a corporate response that assumed childcare was the majority responsibility of working mothers. Although their comments were positively framed around offering support for mothers in the workforce, the assumption that working fathers do not have to juggle childcare and work responsibilities is troubling. Whilst the data tells us that women are bearing the brunt of additional unpaid work, organisations need to be mindful not to create responses with this as their default position.
Management of remote teams was recognised as an essential skill which has become more important in the current climate. Some of the organisations have produced guidelines or toolbox kits on how to manage remote teams but have not been able to monitor whether they are being implemented.
Many of the organisations felt that core EDI work would be maintained post lockdown, particularly when it contributes towards organisational KPIs such as accreditations and talent management plans. However, some noted already that EDI personnel had lost jobs and believed that leaders may shift their focus away from Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the short term.
It was recognised that in the longer term the negative impacts of Covid-19 will be felt disproportionately by different groups. A financial downturn will impact upon younger people, with some of the companies already planning cuts to their graduate recruitment.
Although not part of the time-limited discussions, the group were aware that Covid-19 has affected different groups disproportionately and that organisations need to be aware of these differences when planning their exit from lockdown. These inequalities in the impact of Covid-19 are due to structural oppression and discrimination within our society rather than policy decisions by Government or organisations; nevertheless, employers need to be aware of them and to shape their responses mindful of the whole picture. Whilst we are all in this together, we are not all in it equally:
- BAME communities are suffering disproportionately – analysis by The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that the death rate amongst British black Africans and British Pakistanis from coronavirus in English hospitals is more than 2.5 times that of the white population. And deaths of people from a black Caribbean background are 1.7 times higher than for white Britons. (https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/14827)
- Data shows that women are bearing the brunt of extra childcare and housework and are losing jobs in greater numbers than men. Another report by The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education found that mothers were 47% more likely to have permanently lost their job or quit and were 14% more likely to have been furloughed since the start of the crisis.
The crisis situation of Covid-19 has led to changes in behaviour which would benefit organisations if these are maintained:
- Greater take-up of remote / flexible / agile working patterns with collaborative working and meeting spaces in place of typical office layouts
- More frequent communication from leaders with the whole workforce
- Greater focus on health and wellbeing of all staff
- Greater understanding of the pressures of those with caring responsibilities
Areas of concern:
Leaders are cautioned not to assume that child-care is the sole or majority responsibility of women when considering home-working scenarios.
It was noted that the Gender Pay Gap reporting had been suspended to relieve some of the administrative burden on organisations. This was understood, although organisations are urged to continue with their reporting such that they are able to chart progress effectively and to monitor any impact of the changes that Covid-19 has made to working practices such as the uptake of flexible working patterns.
Leaders are asked to consider the inequalities created by Covid-19 and how they might have further increased existing divisions in the workforce and to shape their lockdown exit strategies in ways which will not widen these divisions.
Organisational leaders are urged not to dial down their EDI efforts in a post-lockdown world where an increased uncertainty will require organisations to be more innovative and productive – both of which are proven benefits of a more diverse workforce.
Development Director, Major Projects Association
Chair, ICG EDI workstream