Though Covid has somewhat strengthened some workplace ties between employees, there's still a significant portion of the workforce which doesn't exactly feel more connected than before. In fact, this physical distance seems to have hurt the industry in many ways, mainly in the realm of mental health.
It also hasn't been an exceptionally nice journey for people from underrepresented communities. Alongside mental health struggle, workplace tensions have been quite hard to alleviate from remote. If there is a time for employers to step up and build more inclusive workplaces, that time is now.
Eager to know more about the topic, we reached out to Holly Evans, HR Consultant at JourneyHR, to discuss why 2021 must be the year in which we reset workplaces and work together towards a healthier future.
Why 2021 must become the year of inclusive workplaces
One of the biggest phenomena of 2020 was the forced shift to remote work as a result of Covid-19 restrictions, with thousands of workers across the globe adapting to working from their homes almost overnight. But this way of working is not going to end when lockdown does, research reveals that hybrid working is expected to more than double going forward, due to many employees enjoying the perks that working from home can offer.
However, as businesses adapt to this new way of working, it is vital that they ensure other aspects of work don’t suffer as a result, for example promoting inclusivity. As businesses see their workforce increasingly through a computer screen, they must develop strategies to ensure that discrimination and abuse is not hidden behind closed doors.
Remote work’s hidden problem
2020 was undoubtedly a milestone year for conversations about diversity and inclusion, triggered by demonstrations across the world for the Black Lives Matter movement. Though diversity has been a longstanding issue for businesses, the series of protests across the world has brought it to the forefront of many minds. Despite this, the pandemic has shifted inclusion initiatives lower down the priorities list for many business leaders, while remote working has also concealed behavioural problems.
It is key that diversity remains high on the agenda for all, with related concerns continuing to follow us into our new world of remote work. Notably, a new report from the CIPD revealed that LGBT+ employees are far more likely to experience workplace conflict and harassment than their heterosexual, cisgender colleagues. Moreover, research from Green Park has also revealed this month that there are no black chairs, chief executives or chief financial officers at any FTSE 100 company. Diversity should remain a key priority for business leaders, regardless of how and where we work.
However, lockdowns and remote work can pose serious threats to diversity targets if we do not take proactive action. The risk with working from home is that discrimination and abuse can be concealed online by malicious individuals. Team members may feel that discriminatory comments can go undocumented and unchallenged in online mediums, such as a private Zoom video call or message on Slack, with no one to overhear or oversee the interaction nor the impact of the comments, as they may do in an office.
Another serious concern is that vulnerable and underrepresented groups may feel even more isolated without the in-person support of friendly colleagues and the HR team. This can have a negative impact on their confidence, making them less likely to flag discriminatory behaviour as they experience it. Businesses must ensure that their teams are aware that the opportunity for discrimination doesn’t disappear when we work remotely, it just moves online with us.
The impact on mental wellbeing
The potential mental impact of misconduct incidents is frightening. For many employees at work issues like microaggressions, social isolation, and overt discrimination can create huge stress and mental health strain. A study by BMC Public Health into the relationship between health, mental health, and perceived discrimination among immigrants in Norway found that perceived discrimination was associated with 1.86 higher odds of mental health issues. This was true even after adjusting for variable sociodemographic and psychosocial factors.
But these employees are now also facing the challenge of working from home. A report from the Royal Society for Public Health also revealed this month that 67% employees remotely working due to COVID-19 felt less connected to their fellow team-mates. This makes for a concerning concoction of factors, that could leave individuals feeling more isolated than ever. It’s vital that employers recognise and take action against these growing and mixing stresses their employees could be facing.
How employers can help
Although all employees play a role in building a workplace culture, managers and leaders play a key role in reinforcing it. In the remote working world, it is important to reaffirm your stance on acceptable behaviour at work and how that translates into our new way of working. This may mean reevaluating workplace policies to ensure they are adapted to new working practices. Recirculating an existing or revised employee handbook or code of conduct can be an effective way to help highlight the behaviours expected as we work from home, reminding the team that creating welcoming places to work remains high on the agenda for senior management.
It is also crucial to recommunicate the methods that managers and their teams can use to report misconduct remotely, as well as the support that HR can provide on such matters. This is not just a case of reminding people of the consequences of bad behaviour, but also encouraging good behaviour by ensuring that people feel comfortable and confident to reach out for support virtually, without the familiarity of an in-person, private chat in a meeting room.
A virtual diversity and inclusion training scheme is a popular and effective way for businesses to kickstart employee education on related topics and encourage an open workplace culture. All team members must be equipped with the skills and knowledge to adapt to the world as people continue to highlight its injustices, so sharing books, podcasts and other learning materials also goes a long way to support progress on employee education without costing anything extra. A team film or book club that regularly reviews content that promotes inclusive values or highlights discrimination issues are also useful ways to formalise learning and normalise discussions around diversity.
People’s home lives widely differ, and this can be an extra stress on your employees which management needs to be mindful of. As a result, the support on offer from employers needs to be equally varied. Many businesses have established support groups for carers, the LGBT+ community and other minorities in order to build peer support systems and an allyship network. Such groups can make it easier to signpost links to external support, while also encouraging a sense of belonging with a group of people, and ensures employees know where they can turn to for support. As ever, communication remains key in identifying the best ways to help, but be mindful that some may prefer video calls, whilst others may find a phone call more suited to their home environment.
Working from home as an opportunity
The rise of remote work also presents us with a unique opportunity to recruit from more diverse talent pools and retain top talent who may face accessibility issues. The opportunity to work from home can help organisations to both retain and recruit talented individuals who may have physical mobility concerns or care duties at home that may restrict their ability to travel to an office. This is especially important in the current jobs market which has hit certain demographics more than others. The ONS has seen a higher unemployment rate for women and the under-25s, while the TUC found that the unemployment rate for BME workers has risen at more than twice the speed of the rate for white workers. When businesses look to start hiring again it’s important to bear these groups in mind and consider how remote working can be used as a positive tool to maintain or build a diverse team if harnessed in the right way.
The national lockdowns and shift to remote working, while creating new challenges, also creates a great opportunity for businesses to step back, assess, and reset how they are working, and if it is being inclusive for all. While you won’t be able to make a completely inclusive business overnight, now is the time to take the first step in your diversity and inclusivity journey, making your virtual workplace inclusive and building your return to normal with everyone in mind.