The Future of Work… the view from my boat

Article written by Monica Mwanje

“We may all be weathering the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat.”

The above quote really resonated with me when I heard it during a virtual summit. It is a very apt way of expressing the impact of COVID-19 and how the effects vary from person to person.

Some are navigating in luxury yachts that are sea-ready and fully equipped. Others are in rickety boats that are taking on water, faster than they can bail it out. Some are in their boats solo, others have a crew they need to support, others have support from a crew.

When I think about the future of work, from a positive perspective I am hopeful and can see great opportunity. However, from a negative perspective I see a mixture of survival and the danger of inequities and exclusion being further exacerbated.

These current times present the opportunity to redefine and redesign the workplace. It has to be done anyway to incorporate physical distancing measures, so why not take the opportunity to also engage with those who have previously been excluded from the workforce? Or with those whose voices have been marginalised?

There’s a real chance to encode equity into they way we do things moving forward. However, to reach this point requires:

(i) acknowledgement that the workplace culture requires improvement,

(ii) a desire to truly be open to change,

(iii) genuine and informed understanding of what changes are required to truly equalise the workplace.

As highlighted in this article: Remote working and disabled employees – How a pandemic brought a long-standing issue to the forefront of the conversation these conversations need to take place, to help move things forward.

My mind keeps thinking about the game of Monopoly. It’s a game I’ve played as a child and as an adult. In principle the roll of the dice limits how far you progress physically on the board. Your fate is then further determined by the squares you land upon. So, in theory every player starts with the equal opportunity to build a monopoly.

As the game develops, tactics can be beneficial. Experienced players with the ability to strategise and draw on their knowledge from previous games, can apply this to make the most of a bad hand. Other experienced players may “roll the dice a particular way” (cheat / play the system) to avoid landing on certain squares that they know will disrupt their plans.  Or maybe other players had a secret pact they agreed before the game. These “tactics” can be very subtly (or blatantly) executed, and if executed well they massively impact the outcome of the game.

If you’ve played the game and lost. You may brush it off if it is the first time you’ve played, as you are still learning, and you know you will improve when you play again and get familiar with how it works.  If you are playing with other players who also follow the same rules that you do, then you have equal opportunity to progress and learn and improve.

But if you’re playing against experienced players who are following a set of rules unknown to you and subtly using tactics at their disposal and you keep losing, you begin to wonder if maybe you are just not that good at monopoly. It could be that you are actually not a good monopoly player.  Or it could be that the game is stacked against you, and without knowledge and access to these invisible rules/tactics that your fellow players have, you will keep losing.

The workplace can be like this. With invisible rules and advantages afforded to some and not to others. For example, if the team leader typically calls on the same circle of advisors and this has now been replicated in the virtual working environment, then those who have been excluded in the past, will remain on the outside with limited/no opportunity to also learn the rules or gain the strategic relationships to advance too.

Good governance and scrutiny of data can help to identify when this is occurring, but this identification needs to be coupled with improvement actions.

To move forward, here are some suggested simple steps leaders can take to begin shaping a more equitable office environment.

  1. Understand your starting position. Look through your calendar for the past weeks that you have been in lockdown. Look at the meetings you have attended or accepted invites to; and track who you have been meeting with.

Have you been opening your calendar to have virtual coffee or networking chats with people? If so, has this be equally distributed so that all team members have a chance to get time with you? Or have these chats only been with the usual group you tend to speak with in the office?

If your first thoughts are “well a group email went out, but these are the only people who responded”, ask yourself why that is so. It is likely that you may need to find a new communication method and to let people know that you are genuinely approachable and that you do want to get to know them. You will need to build trust and a relationship with them.  If you have not had watercooler contact with them in the office, then be honest with yourself, they don’t know you. You need to change that perception and you have the opportunity to do that now.

If you’re not sure how to drive an inclusive virtual work culture, this article by Minda Harts shares: 3 ways to promote a virtual work culture that prioritizes inclusivity.

If there have been layoffs or furloughing of team members, was this done in a fair way? Or has there been a disproportionate impact on underrepresented groups? This McKinsey Article: COVID-19 in the United Kingdom: Assessing jobs at risk and the impact on people and places shares their analysis of the jobs at risk in the United Kingdom and how they differ by region, sector, occupation, education level, age, gender, ethnicity, and family status.

In short, you can’t correct what you are unaware of, so take the time to check the data in your team/organisation and become aware.

2. Take a seat in someone else’s boat. Sign up to be reverse mentored by someone who differs from you and who may have been overlooked previously. It’s an opportunity to exchange skills and knowledge with your mentor and for you to gain perspective and insights that you are likely unaware of in your team/organisation. This Harvard Business Review article ‘Why Reverse Mentoring Works and How to Do It Right’ has guidance on how to approach this.

3. Form a strategic culture advisory group (or board). Give a seat at the table to the minoritised voices in your team and include and involve them in the discussions about your workplace culture moving forward. Hearing those voices, taking onboard feedback and allowing people to influence change will be incredibly valuable. If your team is fairly homogenous, reach out to other teams in the company that have the voices whose input you are seeking and engage them via that route. If utilising talent from within the company, be sure to allocate enough time and budget for them to do this work.

If overall your company is fairly homogenous and you lack the voices you would like to hear from, reach out and engage with an external consultancy or grassroots organisations that have the appropriate skills and insights to assist.

At this point in time the future of work has the opportunity to be shaped in a different and better way than before. Talent that was previously excluded, can gain a voice.  This can open up new ideas and unlock innovation.  However, to achieve this, purposeful action needs to back up any intent, otherwise it will remain a perpetual goal rather than it being a new reality. We can give people the boats, equipment, training and support to navigate the waters, will you do this?