Working out the consequences of Covid
19th April 2021
Just as new laws can have unintended consequences, relaxing the rules can too. One apparently benign result of the pandemic has been the recognition by many organisations that employees can work productively from home – at least for a proportion of the time.
While that freedom will be gladly embraced by many employees, for some the consequences of working from home could be harmful in the short or long term. As employers, we need to carefully weigh the risks as well as the benefits of these changes in the world of work and mitigate them.
Any employee might be affected, but evidence is showing that particular groups are at greater risk.
In last month’s blog marking International Women’s Day, I remarked on the unequal challenges posed by the pandemic for women. You may recall that they were disproportionately hit by the shutdown and unemployment – 30% more likely to work in affected sectors, and twice as likely to lose their jobs.
Of course, the effects of the pandemic are wider. The TUC has highlighted the spike in unemployment for minority ethnic workers. One in 12 were unemployed by January ’21 compared with one in 22 white workers. The drop in employment over the preceding year was 5.3% for minority ethnic workers, compared with 0.2% for their white counterparts.
This partly reflects how the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic employ disproportionately more people from ethnic minorities, as well as more women. The other vulnerable group are the young.
In previous recessions, young people leaving full-time education were hit harder and longer, scarring their prospects for years. A year ago the Resolution Foundation warned that youth unemployment could soar by 600,000. The latest labour statistics show that 200,000 in the 16-24 age group dropped out of the workforce between September and November 2020. That is expected to leap as this age group suffered the highest redundancy rate, and many more could follow when furlough support is withdrawn. Young people are also likely to feel the effects for longer due to long-term structural changes in the labour market on top of the Covid-related job losses.
All this upheaval and change has wide-ranging implications for UK Plc, and for us to consider as employers.
What does more flexible working mean for our people? In theory, at least, it should be good for female workers, making it easier to balance child-rearing and work, and reducing the risk of careers being put on hold or cut short. Women and young people certainly think flexible working is a good idea. Four out of five women were in favour in a UK survey (80%, compared with 52% of men), and 92% of millennials saw flexibility as a top priority when job seeking and this was before the pandemic
However, there are dangers too. Women who work from home may use the time saved from the office commute to take on more of the domestic burden (as seen in the pandemic) or increase their unpaid overtime. The result will be a higher risk of burnout (previously discussed here: A burning issue for our times).
US research also suggests that while greater flexibility leads to increased retention of women in lower managerial roles, it does not necessarily result in more women advancing to senior levels.
Then there are the possible hidden, or unintended, effects if more women than men avail of the opportunity to work from home. Women can often be frozen out of informal networks with male colleagues and decision-makers, especially in male-dominated organisations. If they are working remotely, the chances rise that they may lose out on this informal coaching and advice, and opportunities to build valuable professional relationships.
If men choose to be more visible in the workplace, this new form of ‘presenteeism’ could reinforce any unconscious bias in promotion decisions. Women may be out of sight, out of mind. This is something that every senior HR professional and Board should be take steps to avoid.
Similarly, if some employers seek to save on office accommodation costs by instructing all or most employees to work from home, young staff could suffer. Younger people are more likely to be living in cramped, shared housing. Working on a laptop on your bed or in your bedroom soon loses its appeal. Moreover, junior workers lose the opportunity to learn from working alongside more experienced colleagues, not to mention the benefits of social interaction with peers as well as the structure that attendance at the workplace provides in the early stages of working.
HR professionals and managers need to be alive to these risks. We must be very wary of making assumptions about what’s best for particular groups or individuals, the hidden bias in our organisations, and gaps in employment policies opened up by changes in work patterns. Employment laws will need to evolve to guard against discrimination between office and home workers. And managers need to raise their game.
Evaluating the quality of people’s work objectively and accurately is more important than ever when one person is mainly office-based while a colleague tends to work from home. That should mean measuring output and outcomes rather than spying on employees in their homes or tracking computer activity.
Data and evidence will be needed too on the gender, ethnic and age mix of home and office workers, and also what effects, if any, may be revealed in the rates at which they are being paid, developed, promoted or leaving the company.
Apparently even-handed policies which are equitable in theory can be distorted in practice. For example, although just as well qualified as men, women may not put themselves forward for promotion at the same rate, as Google found with its women engineers. Remote or flexible working could become a factor here too.
Managerial training needs to take account of unconscious bias in favour of those we bump into regularly at the water cooler, as well as more established biases related to gender or ethnicity. All leaders must learn how to involve everyone equally in teams split between the shared workplace and the home workstation.
Managers need to be aware of the risks of burnout, homelife/work stress and balance, and exclusion. That means understanding – without intruding on – the particular work-from-home arrangements and domestic circumstances of those in their team.
We don’t yet know the full effects of the pandemic, its economic aftershocks and structural changes in the labour market or indeed the medium to longer-term psychological and social impacts. But we do need to recognise the risks, as well as the opportunities. Not only can enhanced flexibility potentially enable more women to sustain worthwhile careers and go on to secure fairer representation in senior roles, heavily male-dominated industries can also seize this opportunity to attract more talent from under-represented groups.