By Neta Meidav, CEO & Co-Founder, Vault Platform
The pandemic has presented numerous challenges for business and their HR departments around the world. The adoption of reactive, digital-first strategies resulting in a sharp rise in numbers of people working remotely has created an extensive shift in cultural dynamics in the workplace. As a result, many companies have found it difficult to keep their heads above water.
Now, with the biggest recession in history taking hold, and with recent announcements that fifty of the biggest UK employers have no plans to return to the office, there are risks of further cultural disintegration and an increase in misconduct cases as employers are tempted to drop their progressive internal policies to focus on profits. This risk, coupled with the influx of whistleblower complaints and Covid-19 related lawsuits in the wake of the pandemic, puts organisations under increasing pressure to outline a clear path forward to meet the demands of better protection for employees.
It is essential that we recognise the workplaces’ function not only as a source of income, but as an essential avenue through which individuals can benefit from care and support at difficult times. Employers should strive to create a sense of ‘belonging’ among every vector of their workforce; the key to doing so is through providing secure channels that encourage a ‘speak up’ culture. This is essential in taking ‘inclusion’ in its simplest form and developing it so that long-lasting, effective change can be established. Tackling compliance and legal issues with employee-first internal procedures that place emphasis on building trust and helping individuals feel supported (whether physically present or not), is essential to businesses success moving forward.
The Virtual Workplace
As of mid-March, law firm Lewis Silkin LLP estimated that around 59% of large multinational enterprises had already put into place a plan to respond to pandemic diseases such as Coronavirus. Typical measures include social distancing and remote working arrangements; nearly 6 months later, we have witnessed the biggest work-from-home experiment of all time. Large organisations in the UK, including the Royal Bank of Scotland have told staff to stay home until 2021, and many more are expected never to return to offices at all.
Working life as we once knew it has been subject to a significant cultural shift. Migrating to digital-first models has highlighted an extensive lack of trust between employers and their employees that has been amplified when working through digital channels. It is for this reason that working-from-home had been seen as a ‘perk’ prior to the spread of Covid-19, and caused considerable rifts between those who were able to take advantage and those who were not.
The new challenge for employers is managing a new workplace etiquette that ensures that the vector for workplace discrimination does not shift in parallel with the adoption of digital-first communication. Employers must be committed to pushing out misconduct from their organisations and take guidance from their employees on what support they need moving forward.
Rising Employee Expectations
The pandemic has seen a restructuring of peoples priorities. More emphasis is now being placed on healthy work-life balance, and employers are being forced to recognise their role in protecting the emotional and physical wellbeing of their workforce. For many people, this re-evaluation has steered them away from career advancement as their main driver and towards their personal wellbeing. For the first time, employees are shifting the power dynamics that bind them to their organisations and forcing the hand of their employers when it comes to ensuring protection wherever and whenever they are ‘at work’.
Furthermore, this accountability extends to a critique of past practice. Solutions have been found to business problems associated with the outbreak of COVID-19, such as remote working, in record time, begging the question of what other problems could have been solved so quickly with or without the pressing urgency of a crisis. The crisis has given a voice to many vectors of society that are recognising these past incompetencies and the stalling of important agenda items unnecessarily.
If organisations fail to respond appropriately, the chances that disgruntled employees might take to external channels to voice their concerns is growing. The current crisis has given rise to the mass mobilisation of people through the use of social media, with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement demonstrating the effectiveness of individuals sharing their experiences online. The power of social media as a means to enact change, as well as to hold people and/or organisations to account has been growing since the #MeToo movement dominated headlines in 2017, leading to several high-profile resignations.
Although many companies have made promises on diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the wake of the BLM protests, there is a huge disconnect with what companies say is being done and what is being done. The pressure that businesses are under with Covid and the recession must not result in the sidelining of action on D&I or the commitment to protect employees’ mental health and keep them safe. Issues need to be addressed head-on through internal channels that promote speak up culture to avoid further scrutiny from complaints being raised externally.
Safeguarding the Future of Work
Attention has been drawn recently to the global mental health crisis which is being exacerbated by the pandemic. Anxieties associated with fears of job losses, as well as those suffering in their personal lives from losing loved ones or even suffering from domestic violence, are requiring action beyond that of public healthcare. Now is the time for organisations to recognise their ability to facilitate change with the help of technology and work towards a common goal that sees employees better cared for in order to safeguard the future of work.
Employers must not just implement easily accessible internal speak up tools (a safe and secure way for employees to voice concerns and have these addressed before they escalate to external channels), but must also be prepared to listen. Leadership and management should set this example from the top-down and encourage employee relations groups to do the same from the bottom-up. By taking the time to understand what employees are thinking, employers are taking the imperative first step towards creating a better working environment. Organisations must ensure easy access to resources and policies and regularly remind employees that their concerns will be heard and addressed. Failure to do so will result in long lasting damage to the reputations of those organisations that are unable to meet rising standards of employee protection.