This Expert Is Optimistic About the Post-Covid Workplace. Here’s Why.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to staggering job losses, deaths, and disruption to the workplace. It also has laid bare structural discrimination and inequities, from the gendered division of labor within the home to racialized disparities in health care.
At the same time, the pandemic is accelerating the workplace changes we at Catalyst believe are necessary for inclusion and gender equity in the future of work: the ability to work remotely and flexibly and a heightened awareness of the need for empathy and inclusive leadership.
The question remains: What will the post-pandemic workplace look like? Will it benefit only privileged people who can work from home and do not have to care for children or elderly parents, as well as those able to commute to the office without concern about inadequate health care?
Or, could the pandemic usher in a new, better workplace that prioritizes diversity, inclusion, and equity?
Indeed, a recent Catalyst survey found a striking divide over these two visions. While seven in 10 people believe workplaces will accelerate gender equity, only 41% say their company is “fully committed” to—and already taking steps to create—an inclusive workplace in the wake of the pandemic.
Lauren Pasquarella Daley, Catalyst Senior Director for Women and the Future of Work, has been researching and analyzing the trends that will influence future workplaces. She believes that it is not so much that the pandemic is setting women back—but rather that systemic sexism isn’t being addressed. Here, she explains why she is nonetheless optimistic—and the steps leaders need to take to usher in a better future.
Q: With so many inequities exposed during this crisis, you are still hopeful about the future of work for women. Why?
Lauren Pasquarella Daley: The pandemic fast-forwarded the changes we expected for women and the future of work, and rapid workplace changes will likely continue. My sense of hope comes from the idea that the future is not a fixed point. It is something we are constantly moving toward and can create. With calls for racial justice happening at the same time as the pandemic, we now are at a crossroads—do we choose to move forward and rebuild a more equitable future for everyone, or do we go back to the old normal that didn’t work that well for many of us? At Catalyst, we believe there are great opportunities for women ahead in the future of work if we are intentional in using inclusion and keeping equity top of mind as we move forward along the path of change.
You mentioned that rapid changes will continue. What other shifts can impact equity in the future of work?
Daley: I expect many organizations will now accelerate their automation strategies, particularly in frontline industries with traditionally higher representation of women and people of color.
Companies able to quickly reskill and upskill—especially for workers most impacted by the virus and automation—will be a step ahead not only by meeting the demands of a new post-Covid economy but also by inclusively creating more opportunity through new, diverse talent pipelines. Using reskilling and upskilling to get people in new roles has many business benefits, including building loyalty with consumers and employees, who increasingly expect corporate decisions to reflect social values.
One of the big trends being accelerated is life-work integration. How do you see this integration facilitating gender equity and gender partnership?
Daley: During the coronavirus pandemic, many people are forced to merge their work and home lives. We are peeking inside our colleagues’ homes, and we are witness to their stress, isolation, kids, partners, pets, eldercare, and roommates—today all part of the normal work environment.
This integration presents unique challenges to some, since the opening of traditionally private space widens the sphere in which colleagues of color may face emotional tax. For those with school-age children and elderly parents, the pandemic has caused a crisis in the disproportionate expectations and roles some colleagues—primarily women—face with household management and caregiving.
In partnerships with those who identify as a woman and a man, many men have taken on more household duties than they had previously. In the future, we must ensure that organizations and leaders provide and role model flexibility for all genders so these new gender partnerships stick and we shift expectations around caregiving. If we intentionally address this issue with equity, we can envision a future in which the strain traditionally placed on women alone for household management duties is equalized.
Catalyst research calls attention to empathy as a skill. Why is empathy essential in the future of work?
Daley: Empathy is a human skill not easily automated by emerging technologies like artificial intelligence. As automation accelerates, empathy will become a key differentiator for those leaders and workers entering new roles and industries in the post-Covid-19 economy.
Empathy will continue to be necessary because frequent and unpredictable disruption will continue. Organizations and managers who do not demonstrate empathy will lose customers and talent.
Research also finds that empathy trainings work and their effects are measurable, including those that teach empathy through emerging technologies like VR to create immersive, virtualized experiences.
You see flexible and remote work as critical to a more equitable future. Why?
Daley: Being able to work remotely and flexibly is a privilege, and for the past several months, many workers have been able to exercise this privilege. In many industries, work can be done effectively across distance, with technology allowing for connection, collaboration, and innovation.
The key is providing flexibility in schedule, location, outcomes, and expectations for all genders, especially as we face longer-than-expected school and day care closures, so that women do not feel they have to leave the workplace. This flexibility should stay with us after the virus.
Remote and flexible work environments can improve access for those with visible and invisible disabilities (including health conditions) and also can redefine industries with less-welcoming cultures for women, attracting a more diverse talent pool.
Relatedly, virtual events, trainings, and meetings have become popular options and most likely will become more of a norm—opening opportunities to be fully inclusive and accessible. People who before may have been unable to frequently travel, such as working parents, people with disabilities, and people with other work-life demands, can now be included.
One important point: Remote work does not solve gender inequity on its own. Organizations must be mindful that “out of sight” does not mean “out of mind” when it comes to performance reviews, access to leaders, sponsorship, and new opportunities.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion have long been priorities for forward-thinking leaders. What makes them particularly important now and in the future?
Daley: Everyone across the world is going through the Covid-19 crisis—and many are influenced by the global public protests against racism and violence aimed at Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color—creating a shared experience for all of humanity. However, who we are and how we are positioned influences the layers of trauma and impact we experience. Many lost jobs, loved ones, safe shelter, and rites of passage. Others faced isolation, anxiety, sadness, and conditions that created and worsened mental health concerns.
This shared trauma may impact us in unexpected ways in our lives and at work for many years to come. Creating a more equitable workplace through a foundation of empathy and inclusion will allow us to move together through our shared trauma into a post-Covid world.