It's vital that businesses play their role in supporting the most vulnerable as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic – not only because it is morally right but also because more diverse companies are more agile, creative and adaptive to change.
The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the whole world, but not everyone is affected equally. Income, age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability status all play a role in how likely a person is to catch the virus as well as in the kind of economic consequences they will face.
Globally, for example, 60% of workers are in the informal economy. They are less likely to be able to work remotely and more likely to be without a financial safety net. They risk their health if they continue to work and their financial wellbeing if they don’t.
Women make up the majority of frontline healthcare workers, giving them greater exposure to the virus, are more likely to work part-time and more likely to take on the burden of childcare when schools are closed. People of colour, meanwhile, appear to be at greater risk of severe health problems and are also less likely to be able to work from home and more likely to work in the gig economy.
There are many more examples of the inequality in the effects of COVID-19 and governments, businesses and the charity sector can all play a role in tackling them. Inclusion is good for business; companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues, for example.
Analysing how companies can reaffirm their commitment to inclusion and diversity, the Adecco Group Foundation has launched a white paper that offers practical steps for businesses to not only support the most vulnerable, but to also create a workforce that is better positioned for the future challenges.
There are three main ways that companies can support vulnerable people in their workforce: financial support, adapting workflows and wellbeing initiatives. Financial support can take various forms. In the US, where two-thirds of workers lack entitlement to sick pay, Walmart committed to paying workers if they caught the virus or needed to go into quarantine. Uber, which saw dramatically reduced demand for its ride-sharing service, connected workers with opportunities in logistics for companies such as Amazon.
As well as protecting salaries and helping staff find other work, companies could offer hazard pay to vulnerable staff and commit to extra paid time off or flexible hours. However, it is important to ensure that these financial measures are not only temporary and for the duration of the pandemic but are extend beyond it. To that end, a new social contract is needed as it would offer a long-term solution and social protection for those workers who are currently excluded.
Adapting workflows makes sense in a context of radically altered working practices. Dual-career couples often have to juggle work with home-schooling for their children – something that can be especially time-consuming with younger children, who cannot work independently for long. In response, companies like Samsung are allowing staff with children to work four-day weeks, while Novartis is offering free access to online learning resources for workers’ families. Education organization General Assembly has opened up some of the most popular courses in order to help people and companies in need of new skills.
“Now everyone has that emotional insight about the challenges of balancing work and home life. Vulnerability is the new normal – now we all have a common interest, enemy and situation that shows no discrimination,” says Sarah Cheyne, Global Head Talent Experience and Inclusion at The Adecco Group.
This has taken a toll on the mental health of workers, who face anxiety about health and income as well as the challenges of isolation, which is especially hard for those who live alone. Some firms are offering access to therapy and wellness tools to help employees. Starbucks is giving baristas and their families up to 20 free therapy sessions a year, and access to self-care apps like Headspace, while PwC is making “wellbeing coaches” available.
Cristina A. Wilbur, Head of Group Human Resources at Roche, says: “We provide curated content, a live wellness site we’ve created for our people so they have places they can go for exercise classes and breakfast meetings so people can connect at different times.” However, wellbeing plans don’t need to be elaborate. Even asking managers to host regular check-ins with vulnerable staff might help.
The aftermath of COVID-19 will provide a good opportunity for an inclusivity reboot. Brian Gallagher, CEO of United Way, says: “We’re trying to pierce the ‘let’s get back to normal’ narrative, because normal wasn’t so good for a lot of people.”
It’s an opportunity for transformation, in which work can be remote and flexible, with jobs adapted to the needs of the individual. Virtual work can also give less confident or less dominant personalities a greater chance to have their contributions seen and valued. It can also emphasize a wider variety of skills, including listening skills and supportiveness, for example.
Inclusion and diversity will make companies more resilient and creative, and leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to advance those agendas now, in a way that would not be possible under ‘business as usual’. The decisions made now will make long-term differences to how our economies work. We should not waste the opportunity.