I’ll tell you something: Covid means fairness is harder to deliver – but more vital than ever

Engaging with employees is key to making sure they don't feel disadvantaged by decisions made during this period of significant change, says Lynda Gratton

It is clear an ‘unfreeze’ has happened. Many of the traditional norms and ways of working have been cast aside with extraordinary speed. So as we look forward, executives are beginning to imagine the ‘refreeze’ and what the new norm could be. One thing is certain: employees don’t want to go back to the old ways of working, as our own Hot Spots Movement (HSM) polls have shown – with less than 10 per cent saying they want this. So, it’s no surprise there is a rush to build a narrative about new hybrid ways of working. 

In many ways that’s good news; working flexibly and spending some time working from home can have real benefits. But there are also real downsides. In a recent webinar we polled people about how they felt, particularly with regard to fairness: 37 per cent said they were concerned about how promotion decisions were made in hybrid working arrangements; 30 per cent worried about how caring responsibilities would be factored into performance targets; and 24 per cent were concerned about who should be in the office and who should stay at home. 

Fundamentally in this time of rapid change, what is uppermost in people’s minds are questions of fairness – in terms of the outcomes they experience, the processes they engage with and their interactions with managers. There are significant benefits to getting this right: people are more engaged with their work, more likely to cooperate with others, more likely to stay with the firm and less likely to feel aggrieved and resort to tribunal when they feel they’ve been treated fairly. These are all benefits that will be crucial to navigate in the months ahead. 

Yet the reality of Covid has been that these aspects of fairness are increasingly hard to deliver. Our research shows managers are feeling pressured to get the job done and are therefore making decisions quickly, sometimes cutting corners and so failing to represent the needs of everyone involved. And in virtually interacting with their teams, it is harder to help people understand why a decision has been made, to treat people with respect and to be honest about the implications. 

Issues of fairness were uppermost in the minds of Matthew Wilson and Lorraine Denny, CEO and chief engagement officer at insurance firm Brit, when we partnered with them recently. We engaged 10 per cent of the workforce, selected at random from all parts of the company, so that over the 10-week learning journey the voices of many were heard. Through eight peer-to-peer groups they explored the practices Brit could adopt to prepare for the future. They pitched ideas to the CEO, who agreed a set of initiatives designed by the employees themselves, signalling a new way of working grounded in fairness and co-creation.

We have seen three actions businesses like Brit are taking to ensure they deliver fair practices and processes. These are: engaging people directly in a conversation about the choices and trade-offs they face; being transparent about how and why decisions are made; and providing managers with the tools and insights to help them support colleagues virtually. While the barriers to building fairness are high, the benefits are fundamentally valuable. In so doing, companies can set about creating a better future with, rather than just for, their people.  

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School and founder of HSM. Co-author Emma Birchall is MD at HSM