Has COVID-19 created new inequalities in the UK workforce?

Richard Clarke, Partner, Matthews & Goodman considers the impact of the Covid19 pandemic on diversity at work

Every day I used to work at my open-plan desk, with its two screens and fast access to the internet network, as well as a high-speed colour printer/scanner. I could join in with the office banter, both consciously and subconsciously. I had a choice of numerous coffee styles, as well as chilled water and fruits. If I had confidential or conference calls to make, I had a choice of quiet spaces in the office. 

And of course, everyone in the office and the firm enjoyed exactly the same choices and pleasures.

We were all equal.

But since we have had to Work-From-Home (WFH), I discovered that inequality is alive and prevalent. We are not equal. Some have a dedicated desk in a study larger than a modern flat. Others have coffee tables, piled with books to rest their laptops (of varying quality) on, or kitchen tables which need to be cleared at mealtimes.  

Some enjoy fast broadband while others compete for limited bandwidth with gamers and other WFHers. Some have family or flatmates to entertain them, others are locked up ‘in solitary’. Some have 3,500 sq ft and a large garden to endure lockdown in and others a room in a house in multiple occupation, or a 350 sq ft home.

And yet, we are expected to deliver at home, as we did in the office. 

Perhaps one legacy of COVID-19 is the realisation that employers face a far more complex challenge than we originally thought. The physical workspace – with its novelty receptions, contemporary furniture, mood lighting, and smart climate-controlled offices – is just part of the story. Organisations were already thinking about the psychological and emotional wellbeing of their employees, but WFH will elevate these issues to the top of their agenda.

I know companies which have:

  • Introduced more Facebook-type intranets, to build a far richer ‘me-context’ around employees – encouraging them to share pics and anecdotes about their family, pets, hobbies and interests 
  • Insisted on starting each working day with a 30-minute firm-wide chat about anything BUT work – creating three-dimensional work relationships
  • Paid to set up home offices for employees – covering the costs of buying computers, desks and ergonomic chairs, etc. – for example, Twitter

Perhaps employers should start to behave more like the Quaker businesses of yesteryear. Cadbury’s, for example, created Bournville (at the end of the 19th century) based on a deep belief that as employers, they had to look after their employees’ total wellbeing.

Today their revolutionary innovations (such as a works committee, a medical department and education and training facilities for employees) are considered the norm in the West.

But, buying a 14.5-acre greenfield site for their factory, underpinned by their philanthropy – providing semi-detached houses with sizeable gardens for employees, creating a parkland with recreational facilities for men and women – was considered radical at the time but was in fact primarily about productivity. A concept that governments evolved into Garden Cities (such as Letchworth and Welwyn) and new towns (such as Stevenage and Harlow). 

Perhaps the compassion for others, which has been so evident in lockdown, will be a lasting legacy rather than a short-term phenomenon. If the pain of WW2 changed our society irrevocably and created the NHS-legacy, perhaps C-19 will be remembered for lifting the barriers between strangers living in the same community. Perhaps social distancing will seed the end of handshakes and hello-hugs. 

Post COVID-19, will today’s employers emulate Twitter when the lockdown is lifted and they return to work by investing in creating WFH working conditions which are fit for purpose. Or will they bring WFH concepts to the office?

Will landlords start to design office buildings for life in the 21st century? Designing-in greater contamination barriers; real-time data collection regarding air quality; contactless lift controls and permanent ‘social distancing’. Will tenants fit-out offices with decreased desk ratios, and mobile devices conscripted into ‘check & control’ in-office traffic strategies. Will the paperless office now be a reality, even in traditional offices? 

Will 21st-century employers start to think holistically about their employees, as the Cadbury brothers did, and accept responsibility for their employees’ wellbeing – both at work and at home? Given the fact that T-shirts, mobile phones and fashion garments are still being produced in sweat factories, it’s hard to think that this will be de rigueur across the globe. 

Have we seen the shift of “luxury/clean air” moving from home to the workspace, certainly for the service (desk-based) industries? Perhaps the 2020 office has become a powerful and highly effective social leveller. 

Perhaps landlord-tenant relationships will be less gladiatorial, not framed within a loser/winner paradigm.

In the 14th century, the Black Death/plague led to the end of serfdom in England.

The Great Fire of London, in the 17th century, led to the destruction of slums/unsanitary housing and subsequent rebuilding of the City and the creation of the building regulations.

The ‘Great Crash’ of 1929, which triggered the Great Depression, led to Roosevelt’s New Deal and redefined how all governments would view their role in the economic and social affairs of their nation. 

WW2 led the birth of the NHS.

The ramifications of the 2008 financial crash and the subsequent global economic depression are still being debated, but one legacy is the change in the political landscape and the emergence of populism – from Trump and Brexit, to India and Brazil. 

So, what will COVID-19’s legacy be? A dismantling of the ‘each man for himself’ philosophy we seem to have created? A dismantling of liberal global political economics? China fuelling its global ambitions by providing the world with medical teams/experts and supplies – not just its ‘Belt & Road’ Initiative? 

It remains to be seen, but what I do know is that all of us will rethink our work/office/home equation in the near future. For some WFH will be cemented into their work paradigm, but, for others, the allure of this working method will probably be tarnished.

About the author:

Richard Clarke, partner and head of the Central London Agency team at Matthews & Goodman, has been helping businesses find suitable workspaces for over 28 years.

%d bloggers like this: