Here’s a little story that some of you may find familiar:-
You work in construction, moving between sites and meetings. Life is already a juggle with a small child at home and nursery hours that do not align with working hours. Then lockdown arrives and, whilst the government and your boss tell you that you’re a keyworker, the nursery tells you that you’re not quite key enough and sends your toddler home with you.
Welcome to chaos. Gritted teeth telling you how cute it is that your son has stuck his head directly into the camera during another meeting. Feeling like a failure because you’ve had to put on Teletubbies when all your kid really wants to do is interact with you. Staying up into the evenings trying to hit your deadlines. Timing important meetings for when you think you can get him down for a nap – and then him refusing to nap so that you’re late for the meeting.
And all of this done whilst everyone pretends that a global pandemic will not affect the juggernaut that is a construction project. The programme must be met. We must be able to agree a design despite not being able to put plans on a table and half the team not having the right software. Procurement must go ahead despite furloughed staff and material shortages. Costs must be in budget despite growing mentions of force majeure.
You are working twice as hard to achieve two jobs at once and feel like you are failing at both.
This is a natural place to recognise privilege and note that this experience of lockdown is significantly better than many have faced. It also relates to someone who retained employment and is not one of the thousands made redundant. But, whilst it’s important to recognise these things, we should not risk progress being paralysed by guilt. Because although this story may not show an extreme experience, it does show how much progress is still needed in our industry to achieve true equality and flexible working.
As we face a potential second lockdown and no end in sight to home working, inequalities will continue to be exacerbated within the workplace. So, let’s whisper it so our bosses don’t hear, and then shout it again so they do… it doesn’t matter how dedicated, efficient, hardworking or focused your employees are, some will be unfairly disadvantaged by this situation and their productivity may be duly affected.
Because that’s what all of this comes down to: productivity. Your employer may be understanding in your hours needing to shift, but they do so because it means they can still enjoy the same outputs from you. This is not truly flexible and, whilst it can be a mutually beneficial arrangement, in a covid world it increasingly leads to additional pressure on the employee to endlessly prove their worth.
Many areas of our industry are still woefully lacking in diversity. If we ever want this to change, we need to go beyond understanding people’s situations and act on this understanding. It is not realistic that someone who is suddenly faced with full time care of another person (be that a child or adult) with no reprieve will still be able to deliver in the same way as they did previously, no matter how flexible their hours. The same goes for someone who does not have a safe or comfortable environment to work from at home. Or any other situation that puts them at a disadvantage in the new working environment.
So, what can we do? We need to be far more open-minded and discuss taboo subjects such as an agreed reduction in productivity, temporary reassignment of duties, sabbaticals or job sharing. These drastic and knotty subjects may be required to retain good staff, ensure good mental health and maintain good work as we continue to navigate this moving beast of a pandemic. Admitting to this does not mean that someone is a less valuable team member. In fact, it may be what is necessary for businesses to keep their best team members in the long term. If we go beyond kind words and the view of flexible working as a pure shift in hours, we can grow as an industry and perhaps even deliver on some of our promises of equality and diversity.
Until that time, we will see people either fail to deliver in their roles or compromise their mental health as they push themselves to achieve the impossible. This can only lead to an increase in the equality gaps in our workforce.