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Lessons from Covid for an inclusive future of work

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By Sarah Parkes

“It has been a great work experiment. A real circuit breaker.”

We asked a range of companies and community organisations what the Covid pandemic had taught them about inclusion in the workplace and how they planned to retain any inclusion gains. They could all operate remotely to some extent and were able to offer more flexibility, digital capability, communication and compassion.

As a result, many organisations witnessed greater:

  • workforce participation
  • digital literacy
  • collaboration between teams in different locations
  • worker autonomy
  • sense of belonging to the organisation
  • employer mental health and compassionate support
  • progress made on inclusion policies and resources
  • possibility for more diverse recruitment

However, as Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards noted, “we were working off a strong base of robust relationships that were formed during times of personal contact and connection”. Would a workforce of people who had never spent much physical time with each other have had such a positive experience?

On the negative side, remote working left some people feeling isolated, made it hard for new recruits and young workers to find their feet, led to less incidental collaboration, and led to instances of burnout. It also posed a challenge for the future in terms of employee expectations around flexibility and what hybrid models would look like.

“It has been a great work experiment. A real circuit breaker,” Medibank Senior Executive – Talent, Culture and Capability Shelley Abrams said. When organisations design their ‘new normal’, she says it will help to consider the three needs of workers – concentrate, collaborate and connect.

“It has been a great work experiment. A real circuit breaker.”

“We invite quiet voices into the room.”

Early analysis of the data from our next Inclusive Australia Social Inclusion Index shows that working from home was seen as the most positive Covid restriction. More time with family and less time commuting contributed to higher wellbeing.

“COVID also taught us that both males and females enjoyed working from home spending time with their children or having a more flexible working schedule to do the things important to them,” according to the CEO of a multinational public transport and infrastructure provider.

The five main benefits of remote working:

  1. Accessibility: Employees across locations and in different circumstances, such as those with disabilities and parenting duties, were able to join in conversations that they weren’t necessarily involved in before. And they were able to do so simultaneously rather than getting information later or secondhand.
  2. Share of voice: Video calling allowed more people to actively participate in the conversation than in a teleconference call where people down the line often need to be prompted to talk.
  3. Collaboration: It decentralised large organisations, encouraging employees to work across teams and locations more than they had before.
  4. Digital literacy: There was an acceleration in the digital capability of organisations, particularly with communication platforms, administrative tools, digitisation and digital accessibility requirements. As a result, the digital skills of employees improved considerably.
  5. Morale: It created more personal connections because you were able to see into people’s homes and learn more about them. This led to more acceptance of different circumstances and a sense of belonging to a community.

One energy company said it had learnt to encourage wider participation. “Everyone has an equal voice, we invite quiet voices into the room. Meetings are better facilitated to ensure everyone has a say.”

“We invite quiet voices into the room.”

“Building trusting relationships was hard...”

One group that didn’t feel the inclusion benefits of remote working was young people. Many new recruits and junior staff felt a lack of guidance and camaraderie.

“Building trusting relationships was hard for any new starters in a virtual environment, especially for anyone who already may have a diverse background longing for connection with mutual diverse backgrounds,” South East Water Employee Experience and Talent Manager Stephen Hanlon said. In addition, many young people worked in industries in which remote working was not possible such as services, trades and the arts.

“Building trusting relationships was hard...”

“important to demonstrate empathy and understanding”

All organisations surveyed saw productivity stay the same or increase, particularly for those employees who had fewer distractions at home. This insight combined with the increased transparency of work tasks provided by digital platforms often led to a shift in management styles. The emphasis moved to what gets done rather than how it gets done. South East Water’s Stephen Hanlon said there was less micro-management and a “do as I do” style of management, which gave people more autonomy.

“Removing office attendance reduced the likelihood of leaders making assumptions about individual performance, and individual inclusion based on visual cues. This has oriented leaders to be more deliberate about expectation setting, outcomes and employee wellbeing,” said the transport company CEO.

Regular communication from all levels of management also made people feel more valued and included in decisions. Some organisations did more than others in this area, but an increase in clear and empathetic communication to keep workers motivated and informed was a common goal. This responsibility often rested with middle management, but the biggest learning appeared to be around the impact of executive communication and accessibility. Some activities included virtual town halls, emails, chat tools, lunchtime learning, forums and live virtual events.

“Visible and regular communication and support from our executive leadership team was particularly important to demonstrate empathy and understanding for those that had to manage prolonged lockdowns,” a telecommunications company said.

“important to demonstrate empathy and understanding”

“Opportunity to set a tone and culture for inclusion…”

A greater understanding of people’s circumstances during the pandemic led to closer relationships with employees. Employers took on more responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their staff. Many organisations offered greater mental health support and domestic violence support, which some believe could become a permanent legacy of the pandemic.

In addition, many organisations had the time and momentum to focus on internal diversity and inclusion policies and practices. “This was an opportunity to set a tone and culture for inclusion in our workplace. These initiatives have strengthened our foundation of an inclusive organisation moving forward,” Australian Tennis said, which developed Transgender Inclusion Guidelines and an Inclusion, Diversity and Personal Safety Policy during the period.

“Opportunity to set a tone and culture for inclusion…”
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