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Has the pandemic widened the workplace inequality gap?

The pandemic has forced all of us to reassess our ways of working, but has it helped address workplace inequalities or made them deeper? As part of the university’s contribution to the Economic and Social Research Council's upcoming Festival of Social Sciences we look at how equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is being addressed in the office. Natalie Haydon-Yeung (Law, 2012) and Gary Head (BSc Physics, 1988), panellists for the talk 'Work-life balance: meanings and inequalities', share their insights. 

Natalie-Gary

Our contributors:

Natalie studied Law at Nottingham and after graduating completed her Legal Practice course at Nottingham Law School, she has worked at regional law firm Geldards LLP in the Family Team since 2015.

Gary started as a trainee insurance broker in 1989 and has worked his way to the position of Director of Schemes & Delegated Authorities for AXA Commercial UK.

 
  • What does work-life balance mean to you?

Natalie Haydon-Yeung: A work-life balance is so important in these modern times. Within law there is still this perception that lawyers work all hours and when I started out in my career, it was not unusual for lawyers to email late in the night or very early in the morning. There was this expectation there that you should be available. I have seen a shift away from that over the years. There is much more emphasis placed on a better work-life balance endorsed by senior judges and those in the legal profession.

I find myself often comparing what I want from the modern day workplace to what my parents had bringing me up. They ran their own takeaways and restaurants. A work-life balance did not exist then. But I do not doubt that they would have wanted it and wanted to spend more time with their family. It simply was not a topic as widely spoken about as now.  For me, I am a mum to a two year old son and I have a new baby arriving imminently. It is important to me to be able to be a mum, a wife, a daughter, a friend as well as a successful lawyer.

I do not think it is greedy nor impossible to want it all. I think more and more employers are alert to the need of offering flexible working to working parents in order to ensure we do not lose talent in the workplace. We have seen changes in the law in terms of diversity and equality. There are more females and those from not obviously well privileged backgrounds adopting more senior roles in the legal field. However, there is still some way to go. 

Gary Head: If you can’t enjoy what you do as a career and balance this with an enjoyable and stimulating home life then you are probably going to struggle to bring the best version of yourself in to the workplace and to develop the passion and drive which takes businesses forward.

  • How have you found the last 18 months?

NHY: I was on maternity leave when we went into national lockdown. Like many, I appreciated that life seemed to slow down a little. My husband and I got to spend more time together as a family. When I returned back to work, we were working flexibly, I had court hearings, client meetings and internal meetings remotely. I attended remote networking events. 

We have started to transition back into the office and Geldards have been supportive towards what their employees want. We have an agile working policy which works for many. Ultimately, I have found that the workplace is changing. Employees are more vocal about what they want. We are embracing technology. The challenge, in my view, is how we can still develop employees in their roles and how relationships can continue to grow remotely.

GH: I think the last 18 months have been inspirational and life changing in many ways, especially from a work-life balance perspective. I spent 25 years commuting to and from London for three hours a day and I no longer have to do that simply to sit at my desk and do e-mails. Traveling “with purpose” and co-ordinating to see customers and brokers has made my “office” time so much more productive.

In addition I now have a very effective home working set up and have managed to take many of my calls while out walking in the country where I can think, energise and re-charge.

  • How does hybrid/remote working enable employers to positively address EDI issues? 

NHY: My view is that there are a lot of people who want to go into the law but think they may not “fit in”. There is a confidence barrier before they even set foot in a law firm. Personally, I remember going to my first law lecture, looking around and thinking I did not fit in. Many of my fellow students had clearly benefitted from a private school education. Getting diverse people through the door in any law firm is clearly going to be a hurdle. With hybrid/remote working, this may enable diverse candidates to feel more comfortable. They can work somewhere they feel comfortable whether that be in the office or at home. It gives them confidence to be themselves.

GH: I think it does help people to work and to be supported in a much more flexible and inclusive way. It has also highlighted some of the challenges faced by certain people day to day and provided a more flexible way to support them.

Research insights: Professor Tracey Warren

Work-life balance is key to equality, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace, but research from the university's Professor Tracey Warren shows that the UK is a ‘global work-life balance straggler.’ It sits in 28th place (out of 38 countries) for its performance on the measure of ‘work-life balance’ in the OECD’s ‘Better Life Index’.

This weak international ranking provoked serious questions about work-lives in the UK, even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Warren’s research demonstrates that the pandemic impacted in disparate ways on how and where people worked. It eased work-life balance pressures for some groups e.g. those who could work comfortably from home, but there were deep inequalities in the experiences of covid-compelled home-working.

The pandemic also brought severe health and safety risks to workers in critical occupations who still had to go out to their jobs, and it put livelihoods at risk for those employed in impacted industries. 

The term work-life balance is in widespread use. It is prevalent in many firms’ policies, and it used by academics, campaigners for improved working lives, national and local government, and workers and job seekers too. Despite its prevalence, questions have been asked both about what ‘work-life balance’ means and about its value for improving the work-lives of all groups of workers equally.

 

  • Is EDI an issue that you address in your day-to-day life? 

NHY: I am always aware of the importance of diversity especially in the legal world. I feel it is incredibly important to have a diversity amongst the judiciary and senior members of the legal profession so as to motivate and inspire the junior profession.

Everyone wants someone to look up to and think, “I can do that one day”. EDI is intrinsically linked with innovation/new ideas/new visions. 

GH: Yes my team and the wider AXA organisation are committed to promoting EDI and work very hard every day to teach people about unconscious bias and to open up opportunities for all.

  • Do you think the pandemic has forced workplaces roles to be properly addressed and will it lead to long term change?

NHY: I think the pandemic has highlighted the desire from employees for a better work-life balance and they have ultimately been in a position to demand this more. If one company doesn’t offer, others do. I think employers have to react. I think there is a fear that things will go back to normal and there will be an expectation of going back but I think that would be wrong.

In many cases, employees have demonstrated they can perform whilst working flexibly. I think the challenge, as I have said, is how we can ensure employees are given the flexibility to allow for a better work life balance whilst ensuring the companies maintain a good culture and meet their financial targets. For junior members of staff especially, one challenge is to consider how they can adapt to a flexible working policy whilst not undermining the level of training they receive and the support they need. 

The guidance makes clear that scheduling regular catch ups with a supervisor or as a team to gauge the workload and wellbeing of junior staff is vital.

GH: For the more progressive companies like AXA I think that it will definitely lead to lasting change. For my business, the hybrid model of two or three days in the office or the offices of clients/customers plus two days work from home with the aid of Teams, etc. strikes the right balance and means I am more productive than pre-pandemic. 

  • How do we all think about EDI and better address it with colleagues?

NHY: EDI requires, in my view, proper and thorough research and discussions like the one we are going to be having. It involves listening to what the true barriers are for diverse candidates. It is about working with them to not only bring them through the door but to work with them at keeping them. Retention is important. 

GH: As part of your day to day job - it has to be natural and not forced.

 

Catch Natalie and Gary as part of our Festival of Social Sciences in November. They will appear as panellists in the talk 'Work-life balance: meanings and inequalities' with Professor Tracey Warren on Tuesday 9 November. You can also see the full programme of university events online.

 

 

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