What are the lessons from Covid?

Two new reports – on employees and managers – look at the impact of Covid-19 on how we work, what the lasting legacy of the pandemic will be and how we need to work together to ensure the outcome that works best for all.

Flexible working at home


Empathy seems to be on the rise in workplaces across the UK during the Covid pandemic, according to a new report.

The Rethinking Leadership Through A Gender Lens survey of over 1,250 corporate employees by My Confidence Matters in partnership with remote tech firm Rubica found a huge 92% of employees who felt there had been a change in their manager’s leadership style said the level of understanding and empathy had increased and 92% of employees with caring responsibilities said that their organisation has been supportive in helping them manage these.

Nevertheless, the report notes that women [22%] were more likely to feel that their sense of being valued had fallen during the pandemic than men [16%]. Moreover, 19% of women said it was harder to get heard in virtual meetings, compared to 10% of men, and are more likely than men to say their job satisfaction had decreased during lockdown. The report puts this down to the childcare burden falling heaviest of women.

Challenging the status quo

At a Global Institute for Women’s Leadership event based around the report, Caroline Gosling, Director, Culture & Engagement at Rubica, said there was a danger that employers would conflate Covid remote working with true remote working. She hoped the pandemic would mean they could challenge received ideas about work, such as that the amount of hours you put in demonstrates your commitment. “There is an opportunity for us to rummage around in what we believe about work and about what employers have a right to expect from employees,” she said. She also suggested that leaders visibly diarise non-work activities during the day to role model this for others ie rather than just blocking out time in the day, she said they should state ‘doing the school run’. That signalled that it was ok to do so. “We need to bust assumptions that we have to fill our day with work,” she stated.

Sayeh Ghanbari, a partner at EY, was interested in the long-term impact of Covid on work and cited research from the US showing women were dropping out of the workplace or scaling back their ambitions in response to the pandemic.  She said there was a risk if people did nothing to prepare for the challenges of hybrid working and did not create flexible cultures that there would not be long lasting change. She said Covid had made people realise that different people had different needs and that had to be taken into account for the future of work.

Felix Koch, Regional CEO EMEA & APAC at C Space, spoke about mental well being over the long term. His company had made therapists available to staff. They also had brief daily updates to build a sense of togetherness and gave people Friday afternoons off. He said there was a feeling people are running out of steam. He also advocated strongly for dads to take parental leave and look after young children on their own.

Sonia Astill, Chief People Officer at Wickes, said she didn’t think current levels of empathy would hold post-Covid. Empathy needed to be embedded, she said, and rewarded. Joy Burnford from My Confidence Matters added that it was important that employers track what happens after Covid and who goes back to the office.

There was also a discussion about how to make Zoom life more bearable, for instance, having 25-minute meetings instead of half an hour so people can have five minutes between meetings or holding non-agenda meetings just to chat. One company was powering down computers every day to enforce breaks. Some had considered holding social events during the day and treating them like water cooler events rather than expecting people to do extra Zoom time in the evenings. 

Managers’ role

The launch event was held on the same day as a discussion about another report on the impact on managers of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Managing Employees Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic: Flexible working and the future of work by the Equal Parenting Project at the University of Birmingham and the Work Autonomy, Flexibility and Work-Life Balance at the University of Kent is based on a survey of 742 managers. It shows that, as a result of their management experiences during lockdown, fewer managers now believe that presenteeism and long working hours are essential to career progression within organisations. Many managers also reported that working from home increases productivity, concentration and motivation due to their experiences in lockdown. 58.6% of managers surveyed said that working from home increases productivity whereas only 44.1% agreed with this statement before lockdown.

However, managers also saw some drawbacks, with 58.7% of all those surveyed saying that working from home led to isolation and others citing issues around blurring of boundaries as key negative outcomes. However, most managers now believe working from home will become much more commonplace in the future, with more jobs, including senior roles, being advertised as being available for flexible working and more support being made available for home working.

The report also highlighted that only 4.5% of managers reported that they paid their employees the £6 per week that can be claimed back from HMRC for working from home expenses.

The researchers said momentum on flexible working had to be kept up and that communication was very important when it came to challenging norms. Their recommendations include a day one right to flexible working, a call for employers to have to report flexible working across levels and the need for a campaign to ensure dads and non-parents work flexibly and for tax breaks for home offices.

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