The COVID-19 pandemic has led to employees across the world working from home at an unprecedented level. Employers have had to quickly adapt to the new working landscape, and there has been widespread acknowledgement of the potential long-term benefits of this new way of working. As discussed in our recent podcast (available here), such benefits can include increased productivity, reduced commuting time and expense, and increased time spent with family.
However, as time goes on, the challenges presented by remote working for both employers and employees are also becoming evident. For employees in particular, the switch to remote working may be accompanied by increased family and caring responsibilities, challenges of new technology and concerns about long-term progression.
A particular concern emerging in respect of this new way of working is the potentially negative impact on diversity, as we explore below.
Managing competing demands – the impact on gender diversity
It has long been argued that working from home allows employees the flexibility to manage their working and family demands more effectively. However, the counter argument is that increased time spent working from home can put employees in a position where it is harder to juggle the conflicting demands of work and family, because the boundaries between the two have become blurred. This is particularly the case whilst schools remain partially closed, impacting some employees’ ability to work productively during the day.
Research shows that working mothers are likely to be those most affected by the challenges of the current working environment. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the UCL Institute of Education released on 27 May 2020 found that, in two-parent households in the UK, mothers are on average doing two-thirds less uninterrupted paid-work hours compared to fathers in the same household. Mothers were also found to have reduced their paid working hours substantially and were far more likely to be interrupted during those paid working hours, with almost half of their working hours split between work and other activities such as childcare. Even where fathers have been furloughed as a result of the pandemic, the study found that parents continued to split domestic and childcare responsibilities equally. The difficulty of juggling competing demands will be felt even more acutely by those in single-parent households, where such responsibilities cannot be shared.
Looking to the longer term, these difficulties may have a disproportionate negative impact on affected employees’ career progression (and, given the gender profile of those most affected, on the gender diversity within the workplace). Where those taking on childcare or other caring responsibilities have been unable to work as effectively during the lockdown period, they may also have been unable to take advantage of new opportunities for recognition and promotion during that time. This impact may also be manifested in bias as to work allocation and involvement in decision-making. The recent IFS study concluded that the sharp reduction to the time that mothers are able to dedicate to paid work risks causing lasting harm to their careers, even after lockdown is lifted, and risks a further increase in the gender wage gap.
Broader diversity impact
For the majority of employees, particularly those who are not used to working from home already, adapting to a new way of working may require upfront investment in technology. Whilst many employers will be able to assist with this cost, this is not always the case, and for many employees this will simply be a cost they cannot afford. This risks putting such employees in the impossible position of choosing between the risk of going into their workplace or being unable to work effectively. Those without the ability to invest in technology may also find themselves cut off from their usual social interaction with colleagues, increasing a sense of isolation. The investment required of employees is not limited to a financial one – the investment of time that may be required for employees to get up to speed with new technology could have a negative impact on their productivity (and, in turn, their ability to demonstrate their value).
Beyond the immediate investment that may be required, those on lower incomes may face additional challenges when unable to work from their usual location. For instance, living in shared accommodation (including with family members) may make finding the space and time needed to work effectively more difficult. This may compromise employees’ ability to deliver the quality of work of which they are capable, and lead to challenges with confidence and progression.
Another factor to consider is that some employees will simply adapt better to their changed working environment and the increased use of technology than others. For those who find it more of a struggle, their ability or willingness to contribute during meetings or to share their views in group discussions may be compromised. Unless care is taken by managers to listen out for those quieter voices, or to offer training on how best to make use of technology, there is a risk that another important aspect of workforce diversity – that of diversity of thought and opinion - may diminish.
Additionally, working remotely greatly reduces our ability to integrate and socialise with others outside of our usual social group in the way that a shared workspace allows. This carries the risk of reinforcing familiar networks and employees feeling unable to engage with those who do not come from similar backgrounds, potentially reinforcing affinity bias. In addition, this may reduce the opportunity to pick up informal work-related tips. The benefits of office life, such as a chat in the corridor or grabbing lunch with a colleague, are vital to maintaining a sense of working as a cohesive team, and the reduction in this may disproportionately impact those from minority groups.
You can read more about some of these issues in a separate blog post, available here, which explores the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on diversity and solutions for businesses.
Caring for employees
Without the daily commute and designation of working hours, many employees may be finding it difficult to maintain clear boundaries between their working and personal life. Working demands may end up leaking into evenings and weekends, reducing their ability to manage stress and take much-needed time off. This can have a waterfall effect within working groups, and may be felt most strongly by junior employees who already experience a higher level of unpredictability in their working life.
This may have a negative impact on employees’ mental health, particularly at a time where many employees are already working in difficult conditions and may be struggling with the challenges of living through a pandemic.
What can employers do?
In the early stages of the pandemic, remote working was viewed as a temporary solution to an immediate problem. However, we are now at a stage where the changes to working life look set to continue for some time (and, in some workplaces, may feature more permanently). This heightens the need for employers to get ahead of any potential negative impact on diversity, and to consider how to embrace the opportunities that remote working could offer.
The current transitional period presents an opportunity for employers to consider these concerns, and look at ways of adapting their remote working policies to mitigate the risks identified.
Key areas for employers to consider may include:
- giving employees more details about employer expectations during this time;
- providing clarity on working hours;
- providing training and support on the use of technology;
- rethinking mentoring programmes;
- being conscious of affinity bias and distribution of work opportunities;
- implementing initiatives for employee engagement and inclusion, with follow-up;
- considering how to engage remote workers as some staff return to the office, and maintaining equality of work allocation; and
- giving flexibility to employees managing caring responsibilities.