What happens to D&I if we stop going to offices?
By Jo Faragher on 7 May 2020
Last week, Barclays CEO Jes Staley made a bold statement during the bank’s quarterly results conference: that big corporate offices like its own headquarters in Canary Wharf could become a thing of the past.
He praised tens of thousands of Barclays workers for keeping the bank going “from their kitchens” during the coronavirus, and admitted that the smooth running of the business had prompted a rethink on whether it should continue to rent costly premises. Countless other organisations are also considering their real estate strategies too – increased homeworking reduces the need for expensive offices and there is an environmental bonus too as fewer workers commute and less energy is used keeping buildings heated and lit.
But what might a world where there is less physical contact between workers mean for D&I professionals? Chris Richards, UK and Ireland President at software company Unit 4, argues there are many advantages to offices in terms of organisational culture. She says: “Although lockdown has been the largest experiment of working patterns in history, proving incontrovertibly that permanent remote working can be done, people don’t want to work that way all the time.” She believes organisations now have an opportunity to rethink how work gets done, and that shared spaces provide “the energy and dynamism that comes with real interactions.”
In a recent article reflecting on this potential trend, change consultant Sophie Patrikios, also believes workforces have adapted quickly, but that certain nuances of organisation culture are lost when working virtually. “Being able to spend a day working together as a project team, not in meetings but just being in close proximity, can make a big difference to how well the group interacts and collaborates,” she reflects. Cross-functional groups will lose out, while ‘that’ person in the team to whom you can always ask a question isn’t there and that collective knowledge suffers. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask employees what it is about the office culture they liked before, and how that might be sustained going forward.
Arguably physical togetherness is important for employee resource groups or D&I ambassadors who may have been looking forward to a calendar of physical events to raise awareness of the needs of different groups but have been forced to cancel. But there could be some unexpected benefits. D&I strategist Gamiel Yafai thinks that some of the enforced remote working we’re now experiencing could actually benefit under-represented groups and the D&I agenda more broadly. “[These ways of working] could form habits and offer employers opportunities to engage, attract and employ from a host of talent pools that in the past have been excluded due to physical, mental and neurological disabilities,” he says.
However, this won’t be the case for everyone. Geraldine Gallacher, managing director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy, says that prolonged working from home could deepen gender equality issues in some cases. “Now everyone is working from home you might think this is great for women, but it has challenged relationships because we’re part of a system that has prioritised breadwinners over care-givers,” she says. During the lockdown period, many women have been forced to give up their own working space to a partner who earns more or have taken on the lion’s share of homeschooling and childcare – none of which helps their career prospects.
She also believes there could be equality issues for organisations as we slowly return to offices. “Young people will be among the first to go back as they’re not set up as well to work from home, and this could exacerbate the generational divide,” she says. Employers need to ensure that those who cannot make it into an office are not stigmatised. Caroline Arora, people director at virtual freelancer community Hoxby, says being inclusive is still possible when some work is taking place virtually – her organisation operates almost exclusively on a virtual basis so this is business as usual. “For me the critical way to maintain momentum is to create a sense of belonging,” she says. “If people feel – whether virtually or physically – that they belong to the organisation, then they will feel more connected. It is absolutely crucial to properly up-skill our leaders in virtual leadership, and work to create a cohesive, resilient and empathetic culture.”
Executive coach Reena Dayal says that the change brought about by coronavirus could be a “fault line” for employers, who will now either make the D&I function stronger or allow it to fall through the cracks. “The questions are: what are they basing their D&I strategies on, what work processes will they fine tune that capitalises and unleashes D&I, what leadership styles should they inculcate and what norms must they nurture to embed those norms?” Without the visibility and interaction of a physical office, this may prove difficult, however.
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