A safe post-Covid workplace – a gender divide

open plan office, people working an office, workplace

Article provided by Jess Brook, Culture Amp

Debates continue over the whys and wherefores of returning to a safe workplace post-Covid but deep gender differences over this crucial step back towards normality have yet to be fully absorbed ….and their implications understood.

With so many people on furlough and nervously awaiting word on their redeployment or others grappling with exhausting care and homeschooling demands, the return to the workplace is becoming a multi-faceted problem. And for those lucky enough to even have a choice, it’s a moral debate – should they return to the office, factory or depot for the good of the economy, their family or their wellbeing?

Missing workplace life?

Given the comparative success of home working in the weeks of lockdown, there is an open question about the requirement for people to resume going into their workplace – and accepting the potential risks that come with it.

In a recent YouGov survey, seven in ten people said it is essential that employees return to their workplace to avert a deeper economic crash while a majority (54 per cent) think it is probably still risky to return to work but people should do so to support the economy.

Property owners and employers have run the numbers and predict that existing offices are viable with the latest virus-protection and social distancing measures in place. For example, the landlord of Canary Wharf, which pre-crisis housed 120,000 people, claims that with virus-safe office redesigns, it can accommodate 75 per cent of the previous occupants. The great return is becoming a practical, if still uncertain, prospect.

But the question of employees returning to the workplace and their health and wellbeing being safeguarded could be more complex than the politicians and landlords have allowed for. That’s because successive research suggests clear gender differences when it comes to workplace safety and social interaction in the time of COVID.

Safety worries

In the UK, Office National Statistics research in May found that while equal numbers of men and women were concerned about COVID’s impact on their work (45 per cent), the issues were different by gender: the key impacts for men were being furloughed, being asked to work from home and having fewer hours of work and while women were also most troubled by being furloughed, they were more likely to say they were finding working from home difficult and be concerned about their health and safety at work.

Our own specific ‘Prepare for Returning to the Workplace’ survey of 31,000 employees at organisations around the world shows that women are consistently more concerned about post-lockdown workplace safety matters than men, including:

  • 56 per cent of women compared to 46 per cent of men would like their company to implement more safety measures as they return to work
  • 89 per cent of women wanted to access PPE when returning to work – compared with only 77 per cent of men
  • Tellingly, 45 per cent of men would feel safe using their company’s workplace gym, cafeteria or other social areas while only 36 per cent of women agreed.

How are we to accommodate this gender divide on workplace safety? Some practical considerations when planning your organisation’s return to work or hybrid of office and remote working:

First, since the gender split is so stark on all Safety, Health & Environment issues we investigated, that it is likely UK organisations will need to understand and respond to workplace sentiment and needs over non-core aspects of work – such as social spaces, break-out rooms and eating places.

Secondly, companies need to regularly seek feedback from, and survey, their employees at times of crisis and during extended recovery phases. This will help employers to understand team members’ concerns and requirements when seeking to do risk assessments and then reconfigure and evolve safe post-lockdown workspaces.

Safer workplaces with long-term benefits

The much-anticipated return to the workplace is pragmatic and slow but gathering pace. We need to recognise and act on varying levels of concern amongst employees when making our workplaces Covid-safe and supportive of our future wellbeing.

These requirements could well be far more beneficial for our economy’s long-term recovery and our own health and wellbeing than any arguments from worried politicians – or even the well-meaning but rushed rethink of existing offices, depots and production lines, as we emerge from this singular pandemic.

Jess Brook Culture AmpAbout the author

Jessica Brook works in Culture Amp’s business operations and strategy team – applying a people science lens to the organisational challenges of a scaling business and looking at cross-functional efficiency and organisational design.


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