Thursday 17 December 2020 2:02 am

Combining technology with human ingenuity can level the workplace inclusion gap

Rachel Barton is strategy & consulting lead (UKI) at Accenture

The pandemic has affected every person on the planet. 

It is one of those rare things that we all have in common, although each of us will have experienced it in a different way. 

One thing is certain: whatever may have been said at the start, Covid-19 has not been a great leveller. From age to income, employment status to gender, existing divisions have been exacerbated by the pandemic and overall responses to it.

Workplace equality is just one of the areas that has been hit harder than ever. But while the challenge is great, so is the motivation for businesses to rise to it. In fact, by focusing on the interplay between technology and human ingenuity, businesses can level this playing field as we seek to build back better in 2021 and beyond.

Our recent report, “Who we are is how we’ll grow”, shows just how much workplace inequality has been exacerbated in UK companies during the pandemic. 

Pre-pandemic, 23 per cent of employees with disabilities said they felt completely included at work. That was too low to begin with, and sadly that figure has since fallen to just 16 per cent.

It’s a similar story for those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, with just over half (56 per cent) feeling well supported by their employer since the start of the pandemic, compared to 75 per cent of their colleagues. 

For women too the impact of the pandemic has been profound, with working mothers spending on average nearly two additional hours a day on childcare.

These are shocking statistics in and of themselves. They are particularly unacceptable given the critical role that technology has played to facilitate work these last few months. Technology has the potential to be one of the best levellers we’ve ever seen — democratising access to work, creating flexibility and removing the fixed notion of “place”, creating a far more fluid environment. It could — and should — be used to improve workplace inclusion as well.

So as we start to see a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel with the vaccine roll-out, we need to set out a clear roadmap for addressing these workplace issues, turning to technology as an enabler of inclusion. 

Businesses have a moral duty to ensure that their staff feel included at work — but prioritising this makes good economic sense too. If all UK companies were able to improve workplace inclusivity by just 10 per cent, the uplift in people’s ability and willingness to innovate could increase UK GDP by up to 1.5 per cent each year, adding a huge £393bn to the British economy between now and 2030.

So what steps can businesses take to improve inclusivity and diversity heading into 2021? 

First, leaders must be bold. Now more than ever, it is vital that they show emotional literacy, actively listen, and demonstrate that the values of the company are more important than short-term financial gain. 

We saw at the start of the pandemic how quickly even vast corporates can adapt when they need to: Rolls-Royce was quickly able to switch activity towards manufacturing ventilators, Burberry to producing PPE, gin distilleries to making hand sanitiser. There it is again: the power of human ingenuity and technology. If businesses could do all that back in March, think of the impact bold leadership could have as we strive to create a fairer society now.

Second, businesses should embrace talent from minority groups and make sure they consider their views within relevant decision-making processes, either as leaders or by speaking with representatives of that group. It isn’t enough to just have a diverse workforce — a conscious effort must be made to listen to those with different perspectives. Bringing in these voices and opinions will help to avoid decisions that could inadvertently hurt underrepresented employees, instead moving forward in a way that works better for all.

Finally, leaders should instil inclusive work design that focuses on skills, aptitude, and the potential for individuals to retrain, keeping technology at the heart of everything they do. It is vital to reject outdated assumptions of what it takes to do the job, and design a human-centred business that works in today’s world. The technology already exists — now let’s put it to good use.

While the pandemic has been hard for all, we must all recognise those for whom it has been especially challenging. Businesses have an obligation and an opportunity to make sure we come out of this stronger than before — an opportunity I urge leaders to grab with both hands.

Main image credit: Getty

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