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Pandemic-Era Shifts in Work & DEI Series - Full Article

18 minute read

What a tumultuous time the past two years have been! The pandemic-era (which we are still in) has been a massive, rapid-paced experimentation with new ways of working. It has brought about a profound shift in how we think about work and the future. There are still many open questions and evolving data. We have written an article series covering some of the emerging trends that we’ve categorised as ‘Purpose’, ‘People’, ‘Process & Policy’, and ‘Polarisation & Activism’. Plus, we share reflection questions on what these shifts might mean for DEI in your context during this highly ambiguous, fast-changing time.

This is the FULL VERSION of the article covering all 4 topics. You can also read it as 4 separate shorter articles (PEOPLE, PROCESS & POLICY, POLARISATION & ACTIVISM and PURPOSE) on the Inclusion Nudges blog.

Purpose

Since the onset of the life-shaking pandemic, many people are seeking their personal purpose and questioning how that aligns with their work. One U.S. survey revealed that nearly 2/3’s of respondents were reflecting on purpose due to the pandemic experience. Some of the looming questions are

Is this job worth it for me?
Is it how I want to spend my energy and time?

The implicit work model of making huge personal sacrifices for career growth is being altered with this new anchor of more purposeful work. A global survey in August 2021 of employees found that nearly 60% have left or are planning to leave their jobs to find another role that is a better fit with their personal values, while 50% are seeking roles that offer an improved lifestyle. These motivations are much stronger for leaving jobs now than wanting higher compensation and/or career growth which were common exit reasons in pre-pandemic times. Additionally, this purpose-driven shift cuts across generations. In the U.S., millennial workers were 3x more likely to be re-evaluating their work. While in the U.K., the number employees over the age of 50 who are taking early retirement since the start of the pandemic has more than doubled. While not all job exits are solely due to a lack of purpose, it surely has become an important consideration.

The lockdowns brought to the forefront how pre-existing work models limit fulfilling purpose, making it even more apparent the cost of unequal, biased workplaces. For example, it has been well-documented that many women experience dual work burdens in the professional and domestic spheres of life. That isn’t new news, yet it still didn’t drive massive work redesigns. Now, with the pandemic-era work experience, there has finally been an unavoidable, stark realisation of that for many people.

The old way of working simply isn’t working to support a healthy, connected, and fulfilled life.

Something has got to go. For many women with caregiving responsibilities, there has been significantly higher rates of burnout and resignations from work. Globally during the first year of the pandemic, women’s employment declined by 54 million, or 4.2% while for men the drop was 3% globally. While not all were voluntary resignations, it does demand an immediate response to create healthier work models for all employees, and especially for women, so we can better integrate our personal purpose with work and life in a holistic and sustainable manner moving forward.

When purpose is a primary consideration in work, employee engagement increases. But there is often a gap between knowing and doing. Research in pre-pandemic times, revealed that nearly 79% of business leaders acknowledged the importance of purpose, but only 34% actually used the organisation’s purpose when making decisions. Furthermore, many struggle to facilitate a work environment that stimulates employees’ feelings and experiences of purpose (also beyond the purpose of the organisations where they work). We could have continued along this path of the intention-action gap on purpose, but the pandemic experience has drastically shaken up how many people are viewing the purpose and meaning of their work—and this has implications for employees, managers, leaders, stakeholders, organisation, and society.


Reflective questions


  • Is it expected of you and the leaders in your organisation to be frequently communicating about the organisation’s purpose? If not, is there support to learn how to do this?
  • Is it psychologically safe for all to speak about purpose at work?
  • How do leaders learn about their staff’s experiences with achieving a fulfilling purpose at work?
  • How is purpose used in daily work? Is it part of career development discussions, employer branding, communications, team formation, decision-making, innovation, community engagement, etc.?

People

As economies, organisations, and people are trying to recover from the pandemic, talent is key. Power has shifted to employees and they are in a much stronger position in voicing what will attract and keep them with their employers.

This pandemic era brought about what has been called “The Great Resignation”. A global survey released in March 2021 found that over 40% of employees are thinking about leaving their employers this year. While researchers point out that there has been a building resignation trend before the pandemic, and intent to resign is not actual resignations, it is still a talent concern that the pandemic has accelerated. Consider these jobs data. In the U.S. during August 2021, 4.3 million voluntarily quit their jobs, with 10.4 million open jobs during the same month. In the U.K., during same time, there was a record high number of more than 1 million open jobs. This raises long-term concerns, with 70% of U.S. employers expecting this talent gap to continue next year and 61% report that they are struggling with retention of their employees. Company leaders in Germany (the EU’s largest economy) are also increasingly worried about the lack of skilled employees (with an 11% jump in 3 months to 34.6% in July 2021).

So, who’s leaving?
Analysis shows resignation rates as more prevalent among people at mid-career levels (up 20% from pre-pandemic levels) in the tech and health care sectors (both areas that experienced extreme demand during the pandemic). Additionally, while high turnover rates in the service and hospitality sectors continued during the pandemic, what has shifted is greater public awareness and empathy of the poor working conditions. Also, across many sectors, there are reports of more explosive, on-the-spot “Rage Quitting” when workers can no longer put up with negative work environments.

The pandemic has sharpened attention on the need to value employees and ensure inclusive workplaces with fair labour practices and policies.

In the current times, uncertainty is a given. For some people this has negative consequences because it leads to stress, while for others it has positive implications that leads to rethinking their current situation and considering new opportunities. This situation can trigger changes. Indeed, quitting is now an active way of saying that “we can do better”. With employees realising there are other work options, no organisation can ignore how workplace culture and employee experience impacts talent attraction and retention, and ultimately the organisation’s success and societal economic growth. People-centred work cultures must be part of The Great Reset and other ‘build back better’ initiatives as we emerge from the pandemic.

We must have an inclusive recovery, as it’s not been all voluntary resignations
“The Great Divergence” refers to the inequalities in our current economic recovery. Not all pandemic-era employment changes have been ‘Great Resignations’ but instead were unwanted job losses—further contributing to the global employment crisis. In OECD countries, there are now 20 million fewer people in work since the start of the pandemic, and over 110 million fewer jobs worldwide. The ILO calculates that in 2021 globally the hours worked will be 4.3% below pre-pandemic levels—the equivalent of 125 million full-time jobs. And the OECD points out that fewer working hours was most significantly in low-paid jobs. While unemployment is globally slightly dropping as of May 2021, it is still higher than before the pandemic. We need an inclusive approach to talent and employment, one that embraces the full scope of the pandemic-era work shifts and resets talent and employment to be fairer to all people. This is our moment to make profound changes.


Reflective questions


  • What are you and the employees in your organisation needing to keep them engaged now? Have they been asked since the pandemic began?
  • What is the attrition data in your organisation for the past year? How does this compare to pre-pandemic data?
  • Why have employees left your organisation over the past year? If you don’t know, can you reach out to them for an exit interview? Sometimes having a time break, such as 3 months, from departure allows for more clarity on the issues and safety in voicing these.
  • How have resignations, reductions, and job losses impacted the diversity representation in your workforce? Be sure to look at your data with an intersectional approach.

Process & Policy

In times of change, we can often see more clearly where the status quo is no longer the status needed for current and emerging times. This is a valuable opportunity to assess, design, and experiment with new solutions.

The pandemic brought heightened attention on where work is performed and how it gets done. This is causing major upheavals in the social contract between employees and employers. Workers now have a lower acceptance of things as the norm like workplace ‘presenteeism’, long office commutes, formal clothing codes, poor working conditions, unfair compensation, abuse, discrimination, a false belief in meritocracy, low control over their work, always-on availability expectations, business travel, feelings of isolation, a lack of well-being and psychological safety, no gender equality for family care, and much more.

We now see more clearly that we’ve been in unhealthy workplaces based on outdated norms no longer fitting our current realities.

Now is the time for organisations to re-set and communicate their policies for where and how work happens.

Let’s address one of the biggest policy shifts—work location
There is a lot of emerging, and often conflicting, data on who wants to work remotely. But what does come through in each study is that there is at least one group of people (such as by generation, gender, level, etc.) who express a desire to continue working online. In the U.S., remote work is projected to continue at least one day a week and “the desire for flexible work is strongest among women, working parents and employees of color, who have shown gains in employee experience scores while working remotely.” This will likely have wide “social ramifications, including greater employee diversity, a better work-life balance and larger talent pools, as location and in-office presence become less important.

However, many employees (estimates at 2/3’s of workers) are expecting much more than one day a week and willing to quit if remote work isn’t the norm. Pre-pandemic, many organisations had an ad hoc approach to who gets to work remotely which allowed for biases, placed a heavy decision burden on the manager, made it unlikely for the employee to bring the request forward, and generally wasn’t perceived as fair. In 2019, global research that Lisa & Veronika Hucke did on where and how work is done showed that the vast majority of remote workers were more senior males in the organisation, with working mothers feeling the stigma of asking for this way of working option, and more junior staff wanting remote work but feeling that they don’t dare ask for it out of fear of being seen as ‘not serious about their job’. Now’s the time to get this right after we’ve just had a massive global experience with remote work.

But how that policy gets created is as important as having one, if not more so. An approach that is designed in isolation risks not being fit for purpose, with low acceptance and usage, and may exacerbate inequalities. According to a multi-country survey of knowledge workers, absurdly leaders are not harnessing the very knowledge of their knowledge workers in how work will be going forward; 66% of executives reported that they are designing post-pandemic workforce policies with little to no direct input from their employees! And this isolated approach to new work policies is leading to overconfidence in 66% of executives believing that they are being “very transparent”, but only 42% of workers agree. You can almost see this being doomed from the start. What a loss for getting it right by not engaging the people it’s about in an inclusive process!

Our collective pandemic-era call to action is that policies need to be assessed if they fit the current state and future direction, use data and input from all in the organisation to co-create the new solution that integrates behavioural insights, and implement with agile experimentation.


Reflective questions


  • How is your organisation engaging (co-creating with) all of the staff in crafting the future work policy?
  • Have you defined the purpose of the office? What would necessitate or be the benefit of coming to the office to work?
  • What is the default of your work location policy—office-based, remote, hybrid, etc.?
  • If (when) you have a clear work location policy, how is it communicated so all understand it?
  • Do you have a checklist for decisions on the policy? (Checklists help to lessen bias.)
  • Are managers and employees prepared with tools and skills to work remotely or in a hybrid model?

Also, for inspiration on your work location policy…

Read these Inclusion Nudges:

  • Reveal Gaps in Flexible Working to Increase Use by All in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook and Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies
  • Flexible Working as the Default & Norm in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook, Inclusion Nudges for Leaders, & Inclusion Nudges for Talent Selection
  • Default as ‘All Jobs Are 80% Jobs’ in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook & Inclusion Nudges for Talent Selection

And read these Inclusion Nudges blog articles:

Ask Lisa & Tinna: How Do I Create New Inclusive Workplace Models?
Reframe Language on How We Work Today

Polarisation & Activism

As we remerge from lockdowns, there’s a range of emotions that we all are feeling—sadness, loss, fear, lack of control, and anger. This spills over into society. Research from 17 countries showed that 60% of people feel that we are more divided now than before the pandemic, and this has increased by 30% from pre-pandemic rates.

At work, new challenges arise, such as the ‘no jab, no job’ policies. Requiring vaccinations to return to the office or interface with colleagues and customers feels to some people as the right thing for the public (and personal) good, while for others it’s a controlling step too far in their lives. Frustration and fatigue are high around the world, with over 50,000 protests related to the pandemic. ‘COVID rage’ shows up with increasing accounts of customer abuse towards workers, especially in the hospitality and service sectors where up to 80% have witnessed or experienced this. Against these issues, we also have an increasing of wider inequalities with who has access to the vaccination, and thus potential for restarting economic recovery. The gap between the haves and the have nots could not be more stark.

In addition to the pandemic polarisation in many countries, a lessening of trust in public officials and civic institutions has been building over years. A global research study in August 2021 showed that Millennials and Generation Z’s lack of trust runs so deep that they have higher “faith in governance by system of artificial intelligence than by a fellow human being. … They are fed up with ongoing concerns of corruption and stale political leadership, as well as the constant threat to physical safety caused by surveillance and militarized policing against activists and people of colour.” The tragic murder of George Floyd in May 2020 brought about an increase in Black Lives Matter and anti-racism activism in over 60 countries. This, and many other issues of inequality and discrimination, have become active discussions in society and work.

Employees (as high as 76% in one global research) are now expecting and demanding their workplace leaders take a stand on key social issues. And employees are energised to take action themselves if they feel it’s needed. A global survey in August 2021 showed that 60% of employees feel empowered to be change-makers in their workplace. While “75% globally said they would take action to advance urgently needed changes to their organization, with 40% saying they would go public through whistleblowing, protesting, or social media posts.” Additionally, in the U.S., there has been a resurgence of employees’ interest in labour unions to safeguard human rights at work and to be a part of re-designing organisations’ cultures. During the month of October 2021, more than 25,000 workers were on strike, as compared to an average of 10,000 during the previous 3 months.

Clearly times have changed, but have organisational leaders taken note?
Perhaps not, as respondents to a global survey said that only 48% of their employers are acting on its values. This carries the risk of lowering trust, leaders’ credibility, and engagement. With that, The Great Resignation continues—33% quit when the employer “didn’t speak out about a societal or political issue the employee felt it had an obligation to address.” The era of the silent executive on DEI issues has gone, as is the tolerance of nice sounding public statements with no change. The standard is now to be an inclusive leader who is an ally by action.


Reflective questions


  • What statements about diversity, equity, & inclusion (DEI) have you and the leaders in your organisation made in the past year?
  • Did you and your leaders feel equip to develop these statements (understand the issues, the language, the need for accountable action, etc.)?
  • Have these statements been followed-up with concrete actions? What was the impact? Has this been shared with others? If no was action taken, why not? What can be done to address these action-blockers?
  • If you expected a worker-led public protest to happen tomorrow, what do you think/feel the cause would be? What do you know about your organisation that supports this view? What has been done to address this issue so far? What were the results? Has this been communicated? What more needs to be done? Who should know about this issue? What is blocking progress happening?

Closing Notes:

Thank you to Barry Phillips for inviting Lisa to give an HR Master Class as part of Legal Island’s support for DEI change makers. In that September 2021 session, Lisa presented some of these pandemic-era research trends and led a discussion on what it could mean for DEI.

We hope this summary of research on emerging workplace trends from the pandemic-era has sparked new areas to reflect upon as you focus on DEI and inclusive leadership in your organisations. If you would like to engage us for advisory consulting, coaching, and speaking, please do reach out to us at tinna_and_lisa@inclusion-nudges.org

These Inclusion Nudges can support reflection:

Show Data to Easily See Problems & Do Actions in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook and Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies

Reveal Gaps in Flexible Working to Increase Use by All in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook and Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies

Flexible Working as the Default & Norm in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook, Inclusion Nudges for Leaders, & Inclusion Nudges for Talent Selection

Ask Flip Questions to Change Your Perceptions in the Moment in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook, Inclusion Nudges for Leaders, Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies, & Inclusion Nudges for Talent Selection

Anti-Xenophobia Campaign Realising What We Lose in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook

Alternative to Diversity Excuses in The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook

Want to read more? See these other blog articles:

SERIES: The Pandemic-Era Shifts in Work & DEI: Read the series as 4 separate articles (PEOPLE, PROCESS & POLICY, POLARISATION & ACTIVISM and PURPOSE).

Ally by Actions - Not by Posting on Social Media
Ally Through Empathic Perspective Taking
Ask Lisa & Tinna: How Do I Create New Inclusive Workplace Models?
Reframe Language on How We Work Today
Ask Lisa & Tinna: How Can We Ensure Intersectionality is Best Reflected in KPIs

Want to learn more?

The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook for change makers gives you 100 examples of Inclusion Nudges

Inclusion Nudges Guidebook

The Action Guide series are shorter plug-and-play guides with 30 targeted Inclusion Nudges:

Inclusion Nudges for Leaders

Inclusion Nudges for Talent Selection

Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies

You can learn more and get other free resources on the Inclusion Nudges platform inclusion-nudges.org

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