Coronavirus: How can D&I professionals adapt to the ‘new normal’?
By Jo Faragher on 20 March 2020
D&I professionals, like countless others of their colleagues, will be facing a number of weeks working away from the office as the UK faces an unprecedented public health crisis in the form of coronavirus. With much work capable of being done remotely, they’ll be getting to grips with a new regime of video conferences, collaboration tools and the potential cancellation (or shift online) of face-to-face initiatives.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised staff to begin working from home where possible several days ago, organisations began to get to grips with the tools at their disposal, with some remote working teams even convening their daily ‘water cooler’ chat to platforms such as Skype or Zoom. Even the employment tribunal system will suspend all face to face hearings from next week.
Because so much of the D&I brief is about embedding culture change, staying in touch with colleagues and reaching out for help is so important at this time. Being mindful of mental health and wellbeing has never been so important, with anxiety levels spiking with every day. Engagement consultancy Inpulse recently polled workers and found that 61% of employees feel anxious, distracted or stressed due to the coronavirus, mostly because they fear for their job security.
Ask for help
Maren Fabia Frank, a consultant at ChangingPoint, has this advice for anyone who might be struggling with the isolation: “What I have learned over the years is that it’s important to have social chat, to stay engaged, see your colleagues virtually, take breaks regularly throughout the day, get up from your chair and walk or stretch and have an area where you feel comfortable to work.” Crucially, she adds, you won’t be as visible as you are in an office or team if you need help, so it’s important to ask for help when it’s needed.
Some of the things we take for granted when we’re co-located in an office are not explicit. Take virtual meetings – it may be more obvious in a physical meeting that someone has not felt able to contribute, so it pays to put extra effort in to ensure everyone is heard if these meetings are taking place over video or voice calls. Apeksha Prabhu Walavalkar, a learning and engagement manager, uses her own rule: “Anything I would have said to you if I had to walk by your desk, I will say to you on [web] chat. I feel the need to stay connected, and this helps me.”
Professor Amanda Kirby, diversity campaigner and CEO of inclusive technology company Do-IT solutions, has produced a list of tips for homeworking that includes useful advice such as setting an agenda for the day so there is structure and creating strong boundaries between work and home life. Flexible and part-time recruiter Ten 2 Two has also come up with some ideas, including blocking online distractions – something that can prove difficult when everyone is thirsty for news on the developing situation. “To stay focused and productive, you can turn your email, calls and social media notifications off for set periods of time when you need to focus on work without distractions,” it advises. “Log out of social media accounts so you won’t be tempted to sneak a look and waste time unnecessarily, also known as ‘cyberfloating’.”
As well as ensuring your own remote office set-up is workable, it’s important to keep an eye on how your organisation as a whole is managing the situation. Is it in an inclusive way? Professor Kirby cautions employers about how they provide appropriate support for neurodivergent workers, for example, “who may be feeling more anxious about a change in working, processes, rules and place”.
Jane Sparrow, founder of The Culture Builders, says that while there are many benefits to remote working – especially in times of crisis – it should be approached with care. “Many leaders, teams and companies come at remote working assuming that people will just do it well or adapt easily to it, if it’s new for them,” she says. “The other thing we see a lot is businesses putting in a new or enhanced virtual working tool – and considering the job done. We need to remember that we’re all human – and so dropping people into a totally different way of working with just a new video communication platform – it doesn’t work. We have to think about how we keep people feeling connected, that they’re still part of a team and that there’s still a strong support network in place.”
D&I consultant Charlotte Sweeney of Charlotte Sweeney Associates also hopes that the widespread use of remote working will become “the new normal” but acknowledges that this will be a slow wake-up call for some. “Look at the amount of companies that are struggling at the moment because they saw flexible working as a perk for their employees, and not as a business continuity opportunity for the survival of the business,” she concludes. Once we emerge from the other side of the virus crisis, we should begin to see those organisations who have seen the light.
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