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Tech, women and work in our post-Covid future

  • 29 June 2021
  • 30 min listen

The pandemic had a huge impact on working lives, lifestyles and employment for many of us here in the UK and further afield. In this episode of Life Solved, University of Portsmouth researchers and business experts share their insights into what this means for our relationship with work in the future.

Many in education adapted to online learning during the pandemic. Dan McCabe explains how he collaborated with his department to create an online community where Graphic Design students could socialise, network with industry and enjoy inspiring talks during lockdown. He explains what “The Bruhaus” has added to the learning experience.

Dr Victoria Hooton and Dr Emily Yarrow discuss how the pandemic has contributed to a regression in opportunities for women. They also discuss how society and identity play into the choices women are facing regarding work versus domestic or caring roles right now. And does the surge in remote working and tech have a darker side? They call for increased funding for mental health and domestic abuse support services.

Anne Stevens, Chair of the Advisory Board for The Business School, explores a few of the trends emerging in business and the workplace and asks which are here to stay.

We look at how work culture is changing in terms of our routines, choices and expectations and ask what the opportunities are for businesses and employers who want to attract the best talent going forwards.

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Episode transcript:

John Worsey: You're listening to Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. In this series, researchers share their thoughts and ideas on how life is changing long term as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. During 2020, many of us transitioned to homeworking during national lockdowns. For some, this was enabled by technology and online resources. But not everyone was able to work remotely, and others struggled with access to reliable internet connections, computers or smartphone technology. In addition to that, there were massive changes in our domestic setups as families adjusted to turning homes into workplaces. In the U.K., the number of people claiming unemployment related benefits rose by 1.4 Million between March 2020 and April 2021. So what are the long-term impacts of these changes? How are employers thinking differently? And where does work need to be done to make sure the positive opportunities technology creates, can be shared by all? I'm John Worsey and I'll be finding out in this episode of Life Solved. We'll start with a positive story of one pandemic innovation that looks set to stay. Dan McCabe is a senior lecturer on the business graphic design course here at the University of Portsmouth. He told us how he was able to harness technology to add value to teaching during the pandemic. In the first instance, Dan was faced with the challenge of how to best continue the learning experience using digital platforms.

Dan McCabe: When I think back to March 2020, for us on our course as graphic designers, I think it's fair to say that we're natural problem solvers. And in addition to that, blended learning has always been embedded in our curriculum. So we face those initial challenges feeling, I think, quite confident that we would be able to plan, adjust and rewrite aspects of our course for blended online delivery. I coordinate professional practice modules, and one of which is a team project. So the challenge there was to ensure that the students were able to remain connected and collaborate while working a distance from each other. And of course, we were able to do that through the use of various digital platforms and strategies that really mirrored how industry were responding to the crisis. I think one of the biggest concerns has been on the impact on our students' well-being. Students are struggling with all manner of mental health problems that have surfaced or are being exacerbated by the situation. From experiencing a sense of isolation, disconnection and demotivation. So this meant that we as an institution had to respond quickly to try and put in place even more support and guidance and especially at course level.

John Worsey: Screen fatigue was an issue for many who'd begun to socialise, work and study online during the pandemic. Dan wanted to bring students together out of hours without making them feel like they were stuck in another online meeting. He had plenty of experience in running events to engage students and plenty of connections in the industry. In putting those things together, the Brewhouse was born.

Dan McCabe: The Brewhouse was really an attempt for me to create something extra to help the students feel more plugged in, for want of a better word, more supported and more motivated throughout the pandemic. Ultimately to feel a greater sense of connectedness with each other, with us as their tutors, with alumni and with others working in industry and with the discipline itself. So the question I posed to myself at that early stage was, is it possible to do this in a way that wouldn't add to this the sense of online fatigue and would also enhance the students learning experience? So the initial idea really was to get the students involved in the creation of an event by inviting them to name it and design an identity for it. So I ran this as a design challenge. One of our wonderful third-year students Dylan was the unanimous winner of the naming contest, hence why we are called the Brewhouse. Which is a clever nod to both the Bauhaus and the fictional online social setting in which this event will be taking place. The format is quite simple. The audience is made up of our students and also course alumni are invited along and staff. And I invite three industry guests into the Brewhouse via Zoom and I conduct three 15 minute interviews. We also have some quick fire quiz questions between interviews and we end with half an hour of live music or a live performance. So in a sense, it's a hybrid chat show-design podcast format.

John Worsey: The Brewhouse was such a huge success; it continues to bring amazing benefits to the students and add value to the course. Speakers have included agency heads, alumni and well-known industry leaders who all give their time for free to inspire and help cultivate passion in students beyond the course requirements.

Dan McCabe: We found ways to facilitate and nurture studio culture online, and I guess the Brewhouse has been one of the many ways that we've managed to do that. It's also unique because it's out of hours, it's informal and it embraces the discipline in, dare I say, a nerdy way. And that's something that we, you know, we really encourage on our course and celebrate. I think it's also providing opportunities to reach out to a diverse group of people in industry and get them to engage with us in ways that they may not have been able to under normal circumstances. So far, we've had over 16 well-known, highly revered and respected guests. And I think for me, the key to the success of this event is that it's a form of what I would term "informal teaching". And that's not to say that it isn't purposeful, practical, or professional, it's warmer and perhaps more relaxed so it makes for a comfortable environment. It's run at a pace that takes into account theories around online learning. So in particular, the need to think about online attention span, which of course from various studies show that it's a maximum of 15-20 minutes at a time. So the interviews are short, the content is connected, but it flows relatively swiftly from one item to another. It's extracurricular so it offers value-added in terms of learning and student experience and it's social. So it encourages our students to network and interact with each other and with alumni and the guests. So it creates this sense of connectedness that we wanted and this feeling of being part of a learning community.

John Worsey: Dan says we should acknowledge the huge amount of effort and goodwill that's gone into creating opportunities to learn and connect throughout the pandemic. From people giving their time to teach and talk to innovative new ideas. He says there's much to reflect on in terms of how online platforms can complement education long term.

Dan McCabe: Moving forward, these online platforms will complement and enhance the experience of being present in a physical talk studio environment. I think it will allow for greater flexibility in presenting and critiquing work, and I also think it will provide a more engaging and inclusive way of doing so.

John Worsey: Thanks, Dan. We've seen big changes in the ways we communicate and work in the last 18 months, but how many of these new habits looks set to stay? And are there any areas where businesses should exercise caution when it comes to new working practices? We're going to hear from Anne Stevens now. Anne's chair of the advisory board for the business group. Her career has seen her working across diverse markets and sectors around the world. We asked her how big corporations have evolved in the last year.

Anne Stevens: Clearly, there was an instant reaction to the pandemic and as many organisations as possible got as many people as possible working from home. But what I've seen since then is that you know, there is much more of a hybrid model forming now. I mean, obviously, organisations that have manufacturing and operational staff, they've worked right through. But a lot of the administrative and headquarters staff have been working at home full time. And what I'm seeing now is that most organisations are talking about a hybrid model. A lot of feedback is at the pace of work has increased, more meetings than probably previously. Some of them are shorter meetings don't necessarily have agendas. It definitely creates for a lot of people, increased screen time and I think that brings other issues with it. I think there are also changes in expectations. I think senior leaders, of course, have stopped travelling. And so there is a theme, definite theme coming out around senior leaders demanding more reviews, more meetings, more scrutiny, which in turn can potentially put people under pressure. I guess the other big thing is dress code and the times that people are working, that's been a big shift as well. One other thing I've seen is the need for agility, so agile working, much more flexibility and adaptability and expectations on both sides of the equation, not just from employees and employers, but also from customers, suppliers, stakeholders.

John Worsey: Management practices, dress codes, working hours and travel. Just a few of the places Anne's identified shifts. But which of these changes are here to stay?

Anne Stevens: There are some things that have being really good that have come out of this pandemic. You know, leaders are most definitely getting more knowledgeable and closer to their employees, and employees are feeling that they're getting much more of their time of their leaders and their managers. I think the flexible working from home will stay. Companies are worried now about pollution through commuting. So I think, you know, from a sustainability point of view and an environmental perspective, I think organisations are looking quite, you know, quite long and hard at how much they're asking people to travel, and how much they're expecting people to travel. So I think that shift will definitely stay. I think employees are demanding more time at home. They don't necessarily want to commute every day. So there's a huge shift, I think, in the employee's voice. So I think employers will, where they can, honour that. I'm seeing a lot more choice being given to employees about returning to work or returning to the office and a lot more flexibility. And I think organisations are thinking quite differently now about how they make sure that if they are going to help their people work remotely and they are providing technology, how they also help them progress and develop. I think the dress code may actually stay. I'm not sure that we'll be going back to suits and collars and ties any time soon.

John Worsey: I can't say I'm one for suits and ties myself. So what about the issues that already existed in the job market, such as the push for good quality green jobs or the growth of A.I.? Anne says Covid-19 has sped up some of those big changes.

Anne Stevens: I've heard the pandemic being described as the best thing ever for accelerating digital transformation. So a lot of organisations were talking about digital transformation way before the pandemic. But of course, they've had to move very quickly now to get their technology and their people a-line, get people equipped at home where they can. And I think, you know, there are winners and losers in some of these things. You've only got to look at some of the big organisations that we've seen laying lots and lots of people off, not necessarily just because of digitisation or technology, but certainly, a lot of jobs are being displaced by machine learning, essentially, you know, artificial intelligence or machine learning. And there is a competitive edge to finding the right skills and talent. But what organisations are finding is that their employees are demanding much more and they expect much better of an employer. They want to understand the clear purpose of an organisation. They want to understand the impact on the environment. They want to understand ethics. They want to understand their approach to the whole sustainability. You know, all of the key elements around sustainability employees are much more interested in. And that's putting pressure on employers for sure.

John Worsey: If employee expectations are evolving, how can businesses make the most of post covid practices to deliver better well-being and attract the best talent?

Anne Stevens: I'm hearing more and more organisations thinking about human rights, and I mean that in the broadest sense, as well as specifics around working hours, working conditions, the whole ethics piece, I think is very important. So I think what organisations are having to do now is think quite carefully about their own value set, their own purpose, and how they sell what I would call an employee value proposition. Most organisations now are being scrutinised and have to report on what they're doing in the sustainability space, no doubt about that. But organisations, I think, are waking up to the fact that it's more than just the hard measures that drive productivity. You know employees feeling motivated and aligned with where the organisation is going is definitely a key driver for productivity – there's no question about that. If I was setting up now, if I was setting up, I'd be thinking very carefully about, first of all, where I'm working and where I'm asking my people to work. I'd be asking them to think about what sort of model I'd be adopting from a business perspective, how much agility, what sort of mindset I wanted people to have and how I was going to create that. I think about the focus around behavioural science, and maybe that sounds a bit highbrow, but actually, organisations that look at the behavioural science of motivating employees, how people engage with an organisation, how leaders are equipped to motivate their employees and engage with their employees will be far more successful in the future. There's no doubt that customer behaviour and customer expectations are changing. Since the pandemic, there's been a huge increase in the expectation of speed and fast delivery from customers generally across most industries. But at the same time, there's an issue around supply chain and materials and price points around materials because of the-- because of the supply and demand issue that we've got going on right now. So as a start-up, you need to be thinking about that quite carefully. How do you make sure you meet your customer expectations? How are you going to work with them?

John Worsey: In addition to the changes in our working lives and opportunities, the pandemic had a particular impact upon gender inequalities that already existed worldwide. When domestic lives merged with lockdown home working in the U.K., technology played its part in impacting the experiences of women here. I asked two University of Portsmouth researchers to discuss this. Dr Victoria Hooton has a background in citizenship, equality and UK law.

Victoria Hooton: I'm a senior lecturer in law at the University of Portsmouth Law School, and my research focuses on social welfare and equality.

John Worsey: Victoria is joined by Dr Emily Yarrow. Emily does research into organisational and societal inequalities.

Emily Yarrow: I'm a senior lecturer in International Human Resource Management at Portsmouth Business School.

John Worsey: Victoria started the conversation with her observations on changes in domestic structures.

Victoria Hooton: Probably the most obvious thing that I've seen from friends and colleagues is the child-caring responsibilities that are usually borne by women in their familial structures, especially when it comes down to physical distancing and policies which closed schools down. Women are having to not only take care of child care but also educating young children, something they may not have done before, something that was a struggle for everybody, no matter who you are. But this specifically did seem to be a gendered line inequality, even in dual-career households where women were still working from home alongside their partners.

Emily Yarrow: Yes, absolutely. I think it's really important to make clear that what we have seen already and are continuing to see is kind of really regressive effects on gender equality. It's not just that things have been slightly worsened during the pandemic, but it's important to remember that women started the pandemic from also a point of inequality. A recent McKinsey report, which I've referred to in some of my other work, also estimates that women are simply almost twice as vulnerable as men to things such as job losses during the pandemic. In economic terms as well, women make up around 40 per cent of the global workforce but are more than 50 per cent more likely to lose their jobs in the pandemic as well. As Victoria already mentioned, people are increasingly associating childcare, care for sick or elderly family members with women more than they ever potentially have in recent times. And that's problematic and that will continue to play itself out negatively in the future. It's really important to think about the long term effects of the pandemic on gender equality.

John Worsey: So why do these gender inequalities exist to become entrenched in the first place?

Emily Yarrow: We think of things such as vertical gender segregation in organisations, so where women are represented in the lower-level positions in organisations, things such as the gender pay gap, broader inequalities around, as I've already mentioned, caring responsibilities so not just child care, elder care, sick family members and women also being represented in some of the industries and professions that appear to have been more hard hit or being precariously employed. Women are disproportionately represented in part-time roles, in precarious roles. So there are many different things coming, together there that shape gendered outcomes of the pandemic. To go back briefly to the gender pay gap as well, this is something that we are unfortunately, I think, going to be seeing further regression on as well as many organisations have put on hold their gender pay gap reporting certainly for 2021 and 2020. So some of the data in terms of the effects of the pandemic, we're not going to see for a while longer yet because reporting is, is on hold as well.

Victoria Hooton: Well, I think it probably is a matter of simple inertia. As Emily pointed out, this wasn't the start of an inequality, but instead sort of an accelerator of inequality in a way. And what we can see is that there are attempts to put policies in place to help tackle this inequality that maybe has become less easily ignored during the pandemic, and we see more attention being paid to these inequalities. But policymaking around these areas can be quite difficult for institutions and employers because what you'll also see is a sort of guilt or shame around women that have been consistently told they are the caregivers when they're given a policy that allows them to ease off that role. There is then a choice between taking the sort of employment career focussed side or potentially sick family members or their children. And there's a lot of societal pressure involved as well. It's not all down to individual choice, but the factors around women that may pressure them into one way or the other. So it is a matter of inertia but also sort of emotion as well, and how women are brought up and pressured into these particular pathways that lead to greater inequality.

John Worsey: The reality of gender regression in workplaces and organisations is sobering, but it can't solely be addressed by new policy and funding. Victoria's point that society and the individual also play a role means that women face the burden of choice themselves, something that requires support on every level. Whilst technology has enabled many positive connections during the pandemic, it can also be used as a tool for control or abuse of vulnerable individuals.

Victoria Hooton: It is undeniable that for some individuals, work is a safer space than home. So being removed from their workplace and kept inside their home has a knock-on effect on their physical and mental wellbeing if they suffer from domestic abuse at home. This has gained traction by the new domestic abuse bill that was passed in 2020 and there was a lot of attention paid to it. It increased measures and sort of policies to protect victims of domestic abuse in terms of what the police can do and what measures can be put in place in courts when these issues are actually sort of taken to court. But what we need to be aware of is firstly how domestic abuse changes, especially with technology and the potential for technology to increase the scope of domestic abuse, such as policing someone's online personality, their social media, their communication, especially at a time when our communication is centred online. So we're talking on Zoom now, if you have a partner or someone in your household polices that for you and you have very little privacy, this has such a huge isolating effect for people who are suffering already. Secondly, is the need for funding and services. So if we see an increase in domestic abuse and domestic violence, what survivors need is access to vital services in order to report this, gain support through it and hopefully come out the other side. And the same thing can be seen with the mental health crisis. So being isolated, being away from our usual support structures has a huge impact on how we feel in our day-to-day lives. There has been an increase in sort of GP access and access to online mental health support, such as the charity Mind has reported an increase in access to its resources, but again, it needs funding.

Emily Yarrow: What we are seeing is not an increase in funding, but actually funding cuts in what some of these really pressing and important areas are. So I think is more important than ever to continue the conversations around these really, really pressing concerns because things are going to get tougher for a lot of people unfortunately.

John Worsey: The increased pressure on mental health supported domestic abuse support services means that there's a risk of the most vulnerable people slipping through the cracks. I asked Victoria where she thinks this is most critical.

Victoria Hooton: So it probably will come along a wealth line at some point, those who can afford to access private services are obviously going to be at a better chance of coming out of these situations quicker than those who cannot. We have to caveat that very strongly with it's not just women that experience this. With the abuse, it's also probably women with very young children, those who have a real fear of leaving a household, potentially subjecting their children to poverty or worse sort of financial positions. But it's very difficult to draw a particular profile of who is most at risk because it's so personal to each individual involved with poor mental health or domestic abuse.

John Worsey: Whilst there is much to be done, it seems conversations over social equality have also gained urgency as a result of the pandemic. I wanted to know if increased online adoption has created any positive trends for equality more generally.

Emily Yarrow: It's not necessarily all doom and gloom. I think there have been improvements in awareness of certain access issues that people have faced in the past and maybe still continue to face. I remain hopeful that if we're thinking about people with disabilities, for example, I'm hopeful that their voices are potentially being more heard and that people are at least starting to think about how they can use online platforms in ways that are more accessible and inclusive. I think there have been fruitful beginnings of conversations around equality and diversity, particularly around access to technology in the home for people, access to technology for students, for example. So I think there are lots of positives there as well. There has been certainly in the mainstream media, a lot more coverage about men are taking on all this childcare and doing fantastic jobs and maybe that there's almost a hyper recognition of taking on things that they should have been doing anyway.

Victoria Hooton: Yeah, I think there are particular instances of things becoming more what I would term family-friendly. Part of our role is often to travel. This can be very difficult for women academics with young children and caring responsibilities. And having more things online and accessible and easier to jump in and out of when necessary does make it more family-friendly. It makes it more available for women with very young children, for instance, for women with rather larger families where they cannot simply step out on their partner and go to a conference for half a week, as delightful as that often is. Do I think this is an absolution of social inequality? Absolutely not. I think we need to be very careful that this doesn't become a new era. Women can have and do it all and actually further entrench that position for women. I think there is a danger of that. So I think there needs to be a persistent conversation on exactly how this newfound connectivity online and use of technology is used to actually make things more egalitarian and more equal and to relieve women of especially the societal pressure to be the caregiver, to be the cook, but also to have demanding careers. I think it's also important for us to note that this will obviously present more opportunities for those in wealthier households where there is the space and the access to technology to actually utilise some of these opportunities.

Emily Yarrow: I think ultimately the main learnings are just around understanding that work does not simply have to occur in a very static way or in the vacuum of the workplace. But with that comes new and different requirements for policy, for, in the longer term, for legislation. What it is doing is starting those conversations. There will be different sectors and different areas where there are different levels of resistance to homeworking, flexible working, remote working as well. But I don't think we can shy away from the fact that actually these conversations now aren't simply confined to the business pages of newspapers.

John Worsey: It seems that the next challenge for policymakers, organisations and individuals is to ask how the opportunities of newly adopted technology can be extended to all areas of society. Ensuring that this can be used safely and that it is available to all is a process that requires funding and continued conversation. And whilst the pandemic has deepened already existing gender inequalities not just in the UK but around the world, there is now a rising awareness of these problems. Those of us who found ourselves empowered by more flexible working, increased trust from employers or more inclusive attitudes to family life, can all play a part in interrogating and challenging the pitfalls for those who are excluded or marginalised. It looks like our relationships with workplaces have evolved for good, too, with employees making decisions about where to share their skills ever more based on business culture, values, flexibility and investment in people. If you'd like to share your thoughts on the issues discussed in this programme, you can tweet using the hashtag Life Solved. And you can look at the show notes on this episode for links to resources offering mental health support and support for domestic violence control or abuse. Next time, we'll be looking at how pandemic measures raised new questions about our relationship with democracy and policing, as well as the worrying rise of hate crime.

Lisa Siguira: In the ideal world, it wouldn't reach the platform. GCHQ are looking to use more AI techniques to automatically recognise then forms of language that are abusive.

John Worsey: You can follow this podcast on your favourite app and find out more about our researchers and their projects by going online to port.ac.uk/research.

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