Mass homeworking designed to help organisations deal with the impacts of Covid-19 could spark an increase in prejudice and racism, according to interfaith research body the Woolf Institute.

In its new report How We Get Along: The Diversity Study of England and Wales – compiled in partnership with Survation – the think tank polled 11,701 people on their attitudes towards ethnic, national and religious diversity. It also gathered a set of personal testimonies that shed light on the lived experiences of diversity in the workplace and among friendship groups. (Woolf Institute, 16 November 2020)

The survey found that:

  • three-quarters of all workers in England and Wales – regardless of ethnicity – work in an ethnically diverse setting;
  • three-quarters of workers born in the UK and three-quarters of those who describe their ethnicity as British work with non-British colleagues, and
  • just over four-fifths of employees in England and Wales who self-identify as religious work in a religiously diverse setting.

However, in a Zoom media briefing on the report, Woolf Institute founder Dr Ed Kessler warned that beneath those encouraging findings, the pandemic is disrupting cohesion: as a result of working apart throughout the crisis, workers have been prevented from engaging in the everyday social mixing between different cultures that is all part and parcel of the workplace. (Religion Media Centre, 16 November 2020)

Kessler stressed: “Friendships break down prejudice. Workplaces are places not just of work but of meeting, encounter and friendships.” He added: “As people are forced to work from home during Covid, there is a risk that they go back into isolated silos. Creating new opportunities for friendships should be a key ingredient of public policy.”

What can leaders do to ensure the shift to remote working doesn’t interrupt socially cohesive norms?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s chief executive John Mark Williams says: “This disruption of intercultural relationships is a clear example of unintended consequences: an unexpected outcome of the shift that we’ve experienced towards flexible, and particularly online, forms of working. There are two things I would say about this:

“Firstly, the whole notion that creating opportunities for friendships should be a matter for public policy is simply infeasible. I don’t think it’s either right or appropriate for public policy to decide how people create friendships. Public policy can remove barriers to the creation of relationships or friendships. But it cannot mandate that friendships are created.

“Secondly, on the specific point of how leaders can guard against this disruption, the only real answer is for them to do everything they possibly can to maintain connectivity between the members of their teams. That doesn’t just mean providing the technology and the opportunity. It means encouraging and facilitating ‘meetings’ via remote-working technologies as often as practicable.”

Williams adds: “This is not necessarily about replicating what we would experience in the physical world – but maintaining some of the habits we have cultivated around meeting and connecting with each other in person.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on appreciating diversity

Source refs:

Woolf Institute, 16 November 2020

Religion Media Centre, 16 November 2020