The overall impact of Covid-19 is yet to be counted, but one thing is for sure: the workplace will never be the same again. The pandemic has ripped up the rulebook on traditional ways of working and ushered in a global remote working experiment. Companies and individuals have adapted at speed, and leaders have noted the opportunities that flexible working can bring.
But, and it’s a big but, amidst all the success stories about increased productivity, IT upskilling and lunchtime walks, we’ve also been hearing about some more negative experiences. From zoom fatigue, workspace struggles and a lack of team cohesion to the challenges of juggling work with home-schooling, for some, being forced to work from home during lockdown caused more problems than it solved.
It is also important to recognise that pulling together a short-term plan in response to a crisis is not the same as creating a sustainable, inclusive flexible working strategy. So, what are the risks to diversity and inclusion due to the pandemic, who is affected, and what can employers do to overcome them?
Risk 1: An increasingly negative impact on wellbeing
There’s a great deal of evidence that permanent working from home is blurring the boundaries between people’s work and home lives, and that people are feeling isolated from colleagues and managers. And while initially, employees valued their autonomy, they are increasingly struggling with work-life balance and a lack of support from managers. All of which is having a big impact on wellbeing, across the board.
Risk 2: Rolling back the clock on gender equality
For certain key groups, who struggled to work normal hours even before the pandemic, the issues set out above are more pertinent. A report by Citizens Advice in August suggested that parents, carers, disabled people and those who have previously shielded are twice as likely to face redundancy than the rest of the working population.
Women, in particular, are bearing the brunt. An IFS survey in May revealed that mothers were 47% more likely to have permanently lost their job or quit than fathers; and in June, the TUC noted that low-paid pregnant women are most likely to have lost pay or work since the pandemic began.
And there’s a danger that these key groups will be hit again if hybrid working becomes a more permanent fixture. They are more likely to need to work from home, while their less encumbered colleagues could more easily reap the benefits of time in the office.
Risk 3: A raw deal on flex for frontline workers
It’s obvious but bears repeating, that not all employees can work from home. In some sectors, such as retail, there is an in-company split between those that can (office-based, backroom staff) and those that can’t (shop-floor employees). Unless leaders proactively explore other kinds of flexibility for these roles, there’s a danger of an unfair, two-tier system evolving in which flexible working is not available to all.
Risk 4: A lack of re-entry points for flex workers who lose their jobs
Finally, as an ACAS survey reveals that 1 in 3 employers are likely to make redundancies over the next three months, there’s a huge risk that flexible workers who have lost their jobs, including the key groups cited above, will struggle to find their way back. The 2019 Timewise Flexible Jobs Index showed that only 15% of UK job ads offer flexible working; in a time of economic crisis, when jobs are scarce, people who can’t work without flex are even more likely to be excluded from the workplace.
It’s worth noting that taking action on these points makes sense from a business perspective as well as from an employee one; giving people more input into how, where and when their work is done leads to more engaged, higher performing teams.
To avoid these risks becoming realities, I’d suggest leaders take action in the following ways, starting now:
- Recognise that this goes far beyond having a flexible working policy. You need to establish a clear vision and set of principles around how to create a flexible culture and supportive behaviours. Listen, share, communicate. Be proactive about flex, not reactive.
- Train up your managers to support and progress their team members within a flexible or hybrid working environment. They need to understand how to design flexible jobs and manage a team of people with diverse needs in different locations, ensuring that everyone is included.
- Take the next step and offer flexible jobs at the point of hire. It’s the best way to attract a diverse pool of candidates, and make sure flex workers aren’t left behind. And it’s worth shouting about from an employer brand perspective too.
- Get some help. None of this is easy; flexible job design, for example, is a skill that needs to be learned, not an instinctive process. Specialist organisations can use their expertise to support you.
With further economic difficulties looming, and the timeline for the pandemic still unknown, there are challenges ahead for all of us. But it’s up to us to make sure that diversity and inclusion are not a further casualty of this crisis – and flexible working is the best way to start.
Explore the effect of COVID-19 on diversity and inclusion, and how business can make diversity a priority at the fourth CBI Diversity & Inclusion Conference, 30 November - 1 December. Click here to secure your place.
CBI members get unlimited tickets to attend this conference. Non-members get complimentary access to selected sessions.