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Festival of Work 2021: highlights from day two

16 Jun 2021 By PM Editorial

From allyship in the workplace to the importance of human interaction, People Management explores lessons from the second day of the virtual conference

The 'good old days' of pre Covid are gone

In what could have made for a very succinct panel session, the answer to whether the pandemic has provided a reset of our working lives is a simple, resounding 'yes', according to Acas chair Clare Chapman.

The crisis, she said, has been a "harsh teacher" (the number of calls Acas was receiving to its advice line increased from 3,500 per day to 15,000 per day at the start of the pandemic), but she was pleased to note that there has been tons of "bold experimenting" going on among organisations, and that new ways of working have become everybody's business.

But the changes we've seen in the past 15 or so months are actually part of a bigger mindset shift that's been going on for five or 10 years, she explained. And as we come out of the other side of the pandemic, three things should be at the top of business leaders' and HR's list – the three Rs: reopening, rebuilding and reimagining – and these have to be done in a way that develops new ways of working for the entire labour market. Particularly because the skills shortages we're seeing now, she added, will be the tip of the iceberg in the months and years to come.

Peck Kem Low, CHRO at Singapore's Public Service Division also had an equally straightforward response to the question: "If you think we're going back to the good old days pre Covid, think again," she surmised.

And the most important thing as we move towards this 'new normal' is for employees to feel that HR cares about them – that they are a human being, not a human resource – and that they are trusted, said Willmott Dixon chief people officer Rick Lee OBE.

Allyship in the workplace starts with self education

Allyship in the workplace needs to be data driven, said Sheree Atcheson, global director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Peakon (pictured bottom middle).

Speaking on the allyship and acceptance panel, Atcheson said after the murder of George Floyd last year, Peakon saw a huge increase in the number of comments made in employee surveys about racial equity and inequity. But, when they looked into those comments, they realised a huge percentage were from majority demographics voicing resistance to change.

“With that kind of analysis, what we were able to do was delve down into understanding what’s happening with those groups, why are they voicing resistance to change, and what do we then do to change that,” she said.

Speaking on the same panel, Rukasana Bhaijee, technology, diversity, equality and inclusion lead for EMEA at Google (pictured bottom left), said a big part of allyship was recognising one’s own privilege and using it as a tool to break down institutional and systemic barriers.

Bhaijee added that being an ally meant taking action on “everyday things” such as the daily microaggressions faced by minority groups. “It is a practice. If you’re somebody with that privilege and you’ve had that option to zone out and not engage on certain topics – well now you’re engaging. You will make mistakes but you will learn, iterate and continue.” 

This was echoed by Shereen Daniels, managing director of HR Rewired (pictured top middle), who said many people failed to take the time to understand what racism is. “If you are not understanding what the root causes are where allyship is needed then you end up layering in your assumptions on that,” Daniels said, which can lead to allies perpetuating more harm.

“We do not have a universal understanding about what racism is as a system,” she added. “When you start to understand that then the concept of allyship – what am I doing to not be a bystander, what am I doing to divest myself of that power and privilege – becomes something that’s rooted in a much broader understanding about how this system has managed to [perpetuate] over 400 years.”

Despite automation, human interaction at work is still important

Humans “still hold the comparative advantage” over automation in the workplace, said Carl Benedikt Frey, director of future of work at Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, and social interaction will be increasingly valuable as we move towards hybrid work.

“If you think about the variety of more complex social interactions that we do on a daily basis, like trying to motivate members of our team, trying to convince people that we are right about a certain idea or a strategy, trying to negotiate deals and win people over, machines are very far from outperforming us in those domains and the same goes for creativity,” he said.

Businesses also benefit from “knowledge spillovers” caused by in-person interaction, Frey said. “Although complex social interactions can increasingly be done virtually, many of them are still better done in person.”

Frey used the framework of a project lifecycle to explain how hybrid working could benefit from in-person interaction. “In the early stage, you want people to be at the office [to] interact and explore. When you have decided to execute something, it's much easier for people to work remotely. I think that is going to be the division of labour and what the hybrid world of work should ideally look like.”

Successful businesses are diverse in both thought and culture

Employers that want to improve social mobility and eradicate the disadvantages faced by people with lower socio-economic backgrounds need to understand the makeup of their organisations, said Sandra Wallace, partner and joint managing director in the UK and Europe for DLA Piper.

“We all know that successful businesses are diverse businesses, [through] diversity of thought as well as culture”, Wallace said. “If everybody has come from the same place, come by the same route, and had the same advantage, I think you're poorer as an organisation.”

By asking just one question – ‘what was the main occupation in your household when you were 14?’ – companies can better understand the makeup of an organisation and respond to their diversity needs as a result.

Berna Öztinaz, chief human resources officer at Genel Energy, added that HR professionals needed to better scrutinise whether company boards were meeting their environmental, social and governance criteria. “HR may need some strategic interventions in reviewing senior management selection and succession,” she said

Öztinaz said people professionals needed to ask themselves whether they were selecting and working with senior management who represent their values, their culture and their commitments to sustainable value creation.

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