This article was written by Judith Staig, founder of ContentWrite. It is sponsored by:

So much has been written about COVID-19 over the last 18 months that it may be a big mistake to mention it in the first line of this article. So, if you are still reading, thanks for sticking with it – this is important.

There is growing evidence, from the research industry and elsewhere, in the UK and worldwide, that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate negative impact on minoritised groups. The MRS 2020 DI&E survey found that almost four in ten (38%) researchers surveyed had been put on reduced pay, had their hours reduced, been furloughed or made redundant. This impact was not felt equally.

Client-side researchers were, in the main, shielded from the worst effects of the pandemic, but independent researchers and those working in microbusinesses (with up to five employees) were most likely to have lost pay or hours, or been made redundant. Women were disproportionately affected – this is partly because women are more likely to be independent researchers or work in small businesses. Older researchers – those aged over 55 – were also more likely to have lost pay or hours, been furloughed or made redundant – and again this is linked to a higher proportion of older people working independently or in small companies. 

There is evidence of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 from outside of our industry too. The following is a small selection from the vast number of studies that exist on this subject:

  • A report by McKinsey found that diverse groups including women, LGBTQ+ people, people of colour and working parents have had the hardest time during the pandemic, both in the workplace and with balancing work and home life.
  • The Office for National Statistics reported that working parents were nearly twice as likely to be furloughed (13.6%) as those without children (7.2%) and that women spent an average of an hour longer each day on childcare duties than men during lockdown.
  • A report by the Centre for Aging Better found that the pandemic has also been detrimental to those with health conditions. One in three workers in the UK over the age of fifty are managing at least one long-term health condition; the report found that during the pandemic, employers who were already good at supporting such workers stepped up their efforts, but those that were already poor got worse.
  • A survey of working mothers by Pregnant Then Screwed in July 2020 showed that 15% of mothers had or expected to be made redundant, of whom 46% said that a lack of childcare provision played a role in their redundancy. Additionally, 72% of mothers had to work fewer hours because of childcare issues, and 65% of mothers who were furloughed say a lack of childcare was the reason.

Parents – especially mothers - have been particularly hard hit, due to lack of childcare options, but people in more vulnerable employment situations have been hard hit too. The MRS survey showed that some people in minoritised groups have chosen to work in small businesses in response to poor experiences of diversity and inclusion in larger organisations – but this is what has now put them at risk.

What is particularly interesting is that although these impacts were already being felt at the end of 2020, they weren’t always visible to those who weren’t personally affected.

The MRS survey explored intersectionality by dividing respondents (from large companies) into three groups.

  • Type 1: White, male, straight and non-disabled.
  • Type 2: White, female, straight and non-disabled.
  • Type 3: Anyone belonging to a minority (based on their answers to questions about ethnicity, sexuality, faith and/or disability)

When asked on which groups they thought COVID-19 would have a disproportionately negative impact, the results were as shown in Figure 1.  On all measures, members of minoritised groups were more likely than non-members to expect COVID-19 to affect those groups.


Figure 1 Base: All. Base sizes shown in legend.Q.29: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements: Compared to white British, middle-class, middle-aged, heterosexual, able-bodied men, I expect COVID-19 to have a disproportionate negative impact on:

So we know that diverse groups need more support but, unfortunately, those who are most likely to be in positions of power are less likely to recognise that people have been – and are still – struggling.  The good news is that there is so much that leaders can do to help.

If you cast your mind back to the early days of lockdown, the question that everyone was asking was, “which of these new behaviours will stick?” Now, 18 months on, although the pandemic is clearly not over yet, we know a bit more about what has changed. It’s likely that fewer people are now baking banana bread or tending to a sourdough starter, clapping for the NHS on the doorstep is definitely over, but more flexible working seems here to stay. This is one of the few positive things to come from the pandemic and is potentially a way of improving the working lives of the people who have lost out the most.

The MRS Flex Forum is a collection of industry professionals passionate about flexible working who provide guidance to the sector to help create a fairer, more productive workplace.  A recent Flex Forum webinar shone a light on the links between flexible working and inclusivity, and on the opportunity that we now have to think differently about what work means, and to rebuild our current inadequate system of employment into one that is a better fit with how people want to work today. .

One of the contributors to the webinar, Annie Auerbach, author of Flex: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life said, “Genuine flex is so much more than working from home. What we have been doing is working from home in a crisis. Genuine flex is quality permanent jobs with flexibility at their heart as to where, when and how you work.  It’s not a perk any more, it is an absolute expectation.”

Some of the key ways that leaders can think differently about flexibility are as follows:

  • Flexibility is so much more than working from home. There are many different types of flexibility, such as part-time working, flexi-time, compressed hours or job sharing. Being creative about the flexible options you can offer will enable you to employ a wider and more diverse range of people which, as we all know by now, is great for business.
  • Make flexibility a given, not something that people have to ask for and worry that they won’t be granted. This may involve a change of culture – a focus on outputs and performance rather than physical presence will support a culture of flexibility – and be great for the mental health and work/life balance of all employees, not just those in diverse groups.
  • While we are changing cultures, let’s also make sure that our organisations are built on trust. The use of employee surveillance software has jumped by 50% since the start of the pandemic and continues to grow. But the reality is that most people aren’t ‘shirking’ from home, they are actually doing longer hours and you need to help them to become more balanced, rather than checking up on what they are doing.

Imagine a world in which our working lives and personal responsibilities could coexist in harmony, where we could bring our whole selves to everything we do. A more flexible approach to work doesn’t just benefit parents or women. It helps anyone with other caring responsibilities, anyone who has health or access needs or simply anyone who wants to spend more time with their families, pursue hobbies and interests and have a healthy balance between work and personal life. That’s all of us. We have a fantastic opportunity to change how we work forever, putting flexible working first in a way which will enhance diversity and inclusion. Let’s make that happen.

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