Could COVID-19 be an opportunity to leapfrog a generation of change?

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A crisis can often set the stage for change and provide an opportunity for businesses to re-evaluate their focus, in some cases marking a turning point on issues that have long lacked progress.

Coronavirus has brought topics including gender disparities, racial equality, working practices and climate objectives to the forefront of the news agenda and into renewed focus for many companies.

COVID-19 is of course, first and foremost, a health crisis and the human cost has been significant. But, as society continues to focus on recovery, this time of change and transition could also provide an opportunity to make important strides on some key business issues.

In recent weeks and months, we’ve seen some of these business issues discussed in new and invigorated ways. The devastation from the pandemic has exposed shortcomings in society, and there is a heightened expectation for businesses to proactively address these.

Childcare has put an increasing strain on many working women; COVID-19 cases have put the spotlight firmly on racial disparities; conversations around the UK recovery have sparked calls for a green action; and mass remote working has livened the debate around flexible working arrangements.

This momentum could be a chance to rethink how these issues are navigated, potentially leapfrogging a generation of change with the speed of progress.

From a D&I perspective, research from the London School of Economics has shown the impact of the pandemic on widening the gender gap at home and in the workplace, especially with changing pressures on parenting to encompass home-schooling.

Despite positive progress on gender equality in recent years, there is still more to be done to ensure efforts to create a level playing field stay on track.

We can’t allow progress to stall. Supporting female colleagues during this period of juggling work commitments with childcare, such as offering periods of special paid leave and allowing flexibility in their working day, will be crucial.

More broadly, the pandemic has shown the power of video meetings rather than travelling around the world to meet with clients. This capability and the shift in how we’ve all been working over the past few months can be leveraged to create more opportunities for us all.

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minority communities and the death of George Floyd in the US has sparked real and honest conversations around racial equality in the workplace and boosted the need for businesses to show how they will address this important issue through targets, commitments and steps that will have a meaningful impact on culture and lived experiences.

We’re seeing new and bigger actions taken by big corporates with ambitious deadlines set across racial diversity at senior levels, and, in some cases, gender too. These commitments, set against a ticking time frame, will drive momentum that could lead to sustained progress.

More broadly, mass remote working has shown many companies across the country how technology can successfully facilitate different ways of working.

While there’s not a one size fits all approach, consulting closely with your people and understanding their views could be key to untapping potential in your workforce and improving productivity.

An internal survey of our EY people across the UK has shown a strong interest in keeping flexibility and choice in how and where they work, and many external surveys in recent weeks have pointed to a similar sentiment across many businesses more broadly.

Working practices don’t necessarily require a complete overhaul, but longer-term thinking on a blend of working arrangements could create significant benefits for business.

In addition to changes to working practices, a report from the Climate Assembly UK showed that many people would be prepared to continue other lifestyle changes post COVID-19, such as how they travel.

Meanwhile more than 200 top UK firms and investors have also called for a plan that prioritises this agenda for the government. There is scope to make progress on business climate objectives, including progress towards single-use plastic targets, reducing carbon emissions and other environmental initiatives.

COVID-19 has pushed these conversations up the business agenda and, in many cases, created a real opportunity to seize momentum and drive change on important issues.

Leaders and HR teams need to consider how to incorporate this into their talent and workplace priorities, and ask themselves if some long-term good can come from the crisis.

Justine Campbell is EY UK&I managing partner for talent

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