The stresses and strains of the pandemic have forced a number of social issues that were previously bubbling under the surface into the harsh light of day.
The imbalance between those of us lucky enough to have jobs we can do from home and those that don’t. Those trying to juggle work and home schooling and the plight of low-income families struggling to feed their children. And the economic and cultural divides between different regions of the UK. These are all areas of friction in our society that have come to a head as a result of Covid-19.
Business minister Paul Scully’s recent call on firms to support employees at risk of domestic abuse is yet another example of the pandemic’s ability to exacerbate an issue to the point where it can no longer – and shouldn’t – be ignored.
All businesses have a responsibility to support colleagues experiencing abuse and I welcome the government introducing more direction and guidance for organisations on how they can help to address this awful issue. But I also believe that updating policies and introducing targets while helpful, is not the answer on its own.
Providing colleagues with the level of support the minister describes will require a sea change for a lot of companies in how they engage with and understand their employees. Firms must think much more deeply about whether their culture is fit for a future that, thanks to Covid, is coming into view much faster than expected.
This future, I believe, will demand a far more holistic approach to people management.
We recently conducted a survey with YouGov of 1,000 UK-based employees to find out how the pandemic has affected their outlook on work. A third (31 per cent) feel less motivated, and nearly half (47 per cent) feared the changes to work brought about by the pandemic are affecting their professional development.
Many firms have learned they can operate perfectly well when employees work from home. But equally, enforced home working has highlighted challenges employers must address if it is to become a permanent feature of the working world. The impact on motivation, connectedness and belonging, are all factors that change with remote working that businesses must find ways of replicating.
In this environment, getting a handle on the welfare of an employee is that much more difficult and any safeguarding concerns are that much harder to spot. But these challenges are not exclusive to the home working environment.
Businesses must gain a more complete understanding of their employee base, whether they work from home, or if their role requires them not to. My organisation, Aster, has more than 1,400 employees across a whole range of different roles. Some can be done from home while others – housing development or maintenance and repairs, for example – cannot. The size and variety of our workforce means we have to be very proactive in finding ways to connect and make sure we regularly check-in with them.
Over the past year, we’ve put out regular pulse surveys asking employees how they feel at work. More focused wellbeing sessions give colleagues the opportunity to voice concerns, highlighting any issues they’re struggling with and, importantly, have a say in how those problems are addressed.
By listening to our employees, we can identify how the pandemic is creating strain and tackle these pain points effectively. I believe a more open and honest culture makes it much more likely that an employee would come forward and confide in a colleague about a problem at home.
For example, we know that juggling work with home schooling and caring responsibilities has become more of a challenge since schools closed. As such, we’re working with employees on an individual level to find a way of working that best suits them and their families.
We’ve also set up an online forum where people can share examples of how they’re looking after their own wellbeing, giving remote workers and those in more frontline positions ideas that they can apply to themselves.
Providing leaders with the tools they need to engage with and to lead their teams remotely is crucial. So, we developed a dedicated training programme – Connect4Leaders – specifically designed to equip managers with the skills and tools to lead effectively while remote working.
Over 200 managers from across our businesses also completed a three-day programme learning the principles of ‘restorative practice’, a more collaborative approach to conflict resolution pioneered by the legal sector.
The stress of living through a pandemic can create friction and restorative practices have helped us to strengthen the relationships between our colleagues by creating a more positive culture that encourages open and honest communication. It also promotes a more understanding and supportive environment that enables people get to the root of what is causing a problem.
The pandemic has shone a light on a number of fundamental social, cultural and professional challenges. The worrying increase in domestic abuse cases over the past year is indicative of the trying times we’re all living through and further emphasises the need for businesses to take on a more holistic role in the lives of their employees.
Even if the pandemic has served to exacerbate these problems, it’s important they are not viewed as temporary. For the business community, a more open, flexible and nurturing environment is needed to help employees emerge through the pandemic. And company culture will play a vital role in this.
Rachel Credidio is people and transformation director at Aster Group