Lessons from the ReImagine Fireplace Conversations
COVID-19 and the subsequent national lockdown arrived unexpectedly, swiftly implemented with limited time to enable the well calculated and appropriate shifts that were required for successful remote working. Not only was the lockdown implemented in a rush, but many employers were also caught off guard. The result was that employees were mostly sent off to work remotely without appropriate measures to ensure they adapted effectively to their changing work environment.
COVID-19 has put a spotlight on organisational culture. In their endeavours to keep their organisations afloat, many employers struggled to maintain a healthy balance between the need for survival and showing kindness to their greatest asset during this difficult time. This was a missed opportunity. Bain and Company (2020) argue that “companies who exhibit a winning culture, who have a strong internal compass and inspire their employees, are… 3.7 times more likely to be business performance leaders”. The actions of many companies not only placed profits before people, but also revealed the underlying challenges companies faced in generating an understanding of the practical implications and limitations their employees were facing; from remote working in a complex home environment with multiple responsibilities to the mental struggles in the face of an unseen enemy. Some argued the exclusion of women from decision-making processes resulted in a failure to foresee and respond effectively to these limitations.
The implications of working remotely were even more challenging for women, who found themselves straddling work responsibilities, increased burden of care and household responsibilities, as well as taking on new remote schooling responsibilities for those with school-going children.
Beyond the economic effects, Womaniko was conscious of the emotional strain that many women would face in these circumstances. Removed from their families and support infrastructure, women who rely on social networks to survive were always going to suffer. There were also important conversations to be had on how to cope and how to gain traction in the workplace in these changed circumstances. As burdensome as the lockdown proved to be, it also presented unique opportunities to connect virtually across huge distances. We thus launched a series of Fireplace Conversations under the theme of ReImagine to help women connect, share the challenges they are facing during the lockdown and generate solutions.
What did we learn?
One can never downplay the effects of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown; yet in a strange way, this period has also been a gift to us as a society. It revealed a lot of inequalities and blind spots we have always overlooked about who we are, how we approach our work and the implications thereof.
A reflection on many workplace responses to COVID-19 and the lockdown confirmed what we have always known – that employers often fall short when it comes to the true inclusion of women at work. Instead of crafting COVID-19 responses that speak to the lived realities of women, many opted for gender neutral responses. This was confirmed by an HR Executive who spoke in one of our ReImagine conversations. She clearly stated that they don’t have a culture of making special considerations for women when they develop organisational policies and practices. Their interest is in all their staff equally. This is a serious omission which regrettably widens the gender gap and reinforces the exclusion of women at work. When women’s lived realities are not taken into account, they are not only excluded but are made to feel they are not seen and certainly do not belong. This exclusion had real and practical implications on women which are discussed below.
During our Reimagine Series, time and again women spoken about the blurring of boundaries during the lockdown which saw the employer encroaching into their home space in ways they had not imagined before. This started with a series of online calls that filled up their days, with limited time to do anything else – work-related or not. Some interpreted this as a sign of a lack of trust, with meetings being used as a tool to make sure no room was left for staff to busy themselves with other pursuits outside work. In one of the conversations, a participant complained about how her manager had found a way of bullying staff in their own homes. She had hoped that by working remotely, they would get a break from the bullying they often suffered at the hands of their manager.
Other women complained about the length of meetings, suggesting that these often went beyond their set time. In most cases, they were not even able to take breaks in between meetings. This affected other appointments and limited time set for work implementation; the direct result was working long hours into the night to cover what should have been completed during the day. Women also shared that it was not uncommon for them to get calls or emails from their employers outside of working hours. The assumption being made was that they were available anytime, without due consideration of the implications for relations with spouses, family time and the household care responsibilities that many women face.
New forms of bullying and abuse
The lockdown saw the re-emergence of old and new forms of public humiliation, bullying and harassment at work. This was confirmed in a survey that was jointly carried out by Womaniko and The WellHealth Company in the month of August. The survey, a rapid assessment exploring the effects of COVID-19 on women, revealed that 16% of participants experienced bullying from co-workers or their employers, 7% experienced harassment and 5% experienced victimisation. This showed up in various ways, including body shaming and other micro-aggressions. The findings affirm similar findings by UNWomen https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf which showed that “different forms of on-line violence are on the rise including stalking, bullying, sexual harassment, and sex trolling”. Some of the examples entail “unsolicited pornographic videos while they are dialling into a social event via a virtual chat room19”.
Unfortunately, many employers have not been able to put in place practical measures to detect, prevent and put an end to such behaviours. On the other hand, this revealed the inadequacy of current work policies and practices for protecting the rights and securing the safety of women at work. This can also be attributed to the culture of impunity around women’s safety and harassment in corporate South Africa. This view was echoed in our storybook – There’s More to Us, which was launched in August 2018. Women shared personal stories of the challenges of reporting cases of bullying and harassment at work, often founded on the lack of trust which was fuelled by poor or no response from HR on reported cases of harassment. Women reported suffering secondary victimisation instead of recourse when they reported such incidents. In the context of COVID-19, women feared being labelled over-sensitive and were not confident in calling out such behaviour. They were left with their feelings of uneasiness and discomfort in knowing that they were violated.
Challenges of making appropriate shifts to accommodate the realities of remote working
“It’s not easy working from home with poor internet…data bundles are limited. Wifi is better, since it’s not limited, however it is also very expensive and uses electricity”, Jane Chepchir.
Many women argued that their employers insisted on operating as though things were normal. Staff were asked to log into their computers at the same time as they would under normal circumstances. Whilst on the surface this may be seen as a reasonable ask, it was not the case for many of them. The key assumptions being that staff should be able to login at this time without any trouble and were in a better position because they did not have to face heavy morning traffic. What most employers failed to see however is that the living conditions of employees are not homogenous. Many women, particularly those with school-going and small children would find this difficult to manage as they were expected to bathe, feed, prepare school schedules and monitor school work for their children. Moreover, child-care facilities at the time were closed and women who would ordinarily outsource such responsibilities were not able to.
Transferring organisational costs to staff
Womaniko heard of instances when employees were not provided with the appropriate tools to work remotely. In such instances they were obliged to use their own resources such as data and personal devices to carry out their work duties. This added another layer of financial responsibility on women who already shoulder the cost of food in many homes. This view was supported by our online survey with 25% of the respondents indicating that they used their own resources for work purposes during the lockdown. This is tantamount to transferring organisational costs to staff. With feelings of powerlessness and a sense of gratitude for having a job at such a difficult time, women were often not able to negotiate themselves out of these demands.
Employers were not able to respond to the mental wellbeing and care needs of women
Many people were engulfed with fear at the announcement of this deadly virus that had spread across the globe. At the beginning of the lockdown, women shared their fears of contracting the virus, they also feared dying alone and leave their loved ones behind. Meanwhile, frontline workers not only feared for their lives but also feared transmitting the virus to their families. Many employers failed to create internal spaces to enable their employees to engage and address these fears in the workplace context. For many women, these fears were aggravated by increased and competing household responsibilities. Failure to engage women resulted in most employers being unable to appreciate and therefore respond effectively to their mental wellbeing and other needs.
Those who had access to our ReImagine spaces found a place for deep connections, offloading and getting support from others. Many reflected on how healing the ability to connect and share without judgement has been for them. This kind of feedback is testament to the need for workplaces to create internal safe spaces for staff to engage at a human level. The value of such platforms was confirmed by one of the participants who introduced a similar idea where she works. Staff took advantage and this has been one of the meaningful ways of support amongst staff in that particular organisation.
Shrinking spaces for women to engage moving forward
In the midst of the different challenges that professional women have faced during the lockdown, it has also become apparent that spaces for engagement are shrinking. Initially, women were able to make time to participate in online engagements that were not only work-related. Yet as the lockdown has proceeded, even with lower levels, competing demands have seen women finding less time for their own pursuits. This shrinking of spaces and time to connect is a concern, it prevents professional women from actively advocating for their own needs.
The birth of Dare2See Us Campaign – Positive experiences to Inspire a Different Kind of Working Where Women are Seen
Our ReImagine series also created space for the many positive experiences our participants had in the workplace during the lockdown to be heard. These positive stories were used to inspire initiatives in different workplaces. The series boldly defined the gains for women in the remote work and lockdown context, identifying these as leverage points for women to thrive in the workplace and brave the new normal, which should not be lost after the lockdown. The conversations were insightful and became a reminder that a different way of working, where women are seen, is possible.
Many participants appreciated the opportunity to strengthened family bonds that the lockdown and remote work presented. This is not withstanding the difficulties experienced by those who did not have support from their partners, those who were raising children alone and those whose home dynamics were complex, for example facing lockdown with a violent partner.
Other women loved the ability to take breaks and walks in between their work assignments. This served as a good reminder of the importance of self-care, something that is not always taken seriously yet is so important for productivity. It is also true that there has never been a time in our history when so much information and learning opportunities were available online and for free all at once. Professional women were able to take advantage of these learning opportunities which contributed to their self-empowerment and self-care.
We also heard of deliberate actions by employers who demonstrated care, informed by the value of our common humanity. Although not directed specifically at women, such actions directly benefited women employees. One example was providing infrastructure to help staff setup conducive workstations at home. Other small initiatives included starting meetings with check-ins or welcoming children who disrupted virtual sessions. Larger companies were able to implement initiatives that addressed community needs including food security, access to free-data online education platforms and gender-based violence. Such initiatives inspire hope for the possibility of humane ways of working. More importantly, they act as good stepping stones to call for bolder actions that are not only humane but women-centric.
It is such actions, women’s stories and experiences that have inspired Womaniko and The Well Health Company to start a #Dare2SeeUs Campaign. Being aware of the competing demands workplaces currently face, the campaign takes an appreciative approach. It seeks to highlight initiatives undertaken by workplaces to respond to the disproportionate impacts of Covid-19 on women. Our hope is that women can individually join the campaign by sharing their own experiences where their employers take deliberate actions that see them. We are also looking for endorsements from companies who have stories to share to inspire change towards inclusive workplaces where gender equality is achievable.
The campaign will be launched on the 29 of October and more details on this will be shared through our different media and social media platforms which are Facebook: womaniko; Twitter: womanikospaces; LinkedIn: Womaniko Transforming Spaces.