PROTECT, RECOVER and THRIVE – Tai Pawb’s equality roadmap in a post-COVID world

Written by Ross Thomas

Far from being the ‘great leveller’ – as per the description used in some quarters in the early days of the crisis – COVID-19 has exposed and, in many cases, worsened already deep-seated inequalities in the fabric of our society. From healthcare and the welfare system through to the impact on diverse groups such disabled people, BAME people, young people and women.

Amid the public health crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement has doubly highlighted racial injustice entrenched in our systems. William Wilberforce once said of slavery: “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know”. No more true a statement could better reflect the need – and the desire – for positive and long-lasting change.

As society begins to rebuild itself in the wake of COVID-19 – or at least adapting to life with it as an ongoing feature – we’re presented with an opportunity to ask a question of ourselves: how do we ensure that we protect and enhance rights, equality and inclusion in a post-pandemic world?

Over the past few months, Tai Pawb has been engaging with members on the impact of the virus right across the housing sector, from development and regeneration to staff working arrangements and tenant engagement. There is widespread recognition, certainly in the earlier phase of lockdown, that things were tough. Equally, there has been rapid and positive adaption to make the best of the circumstances, for example the introduction of remote working across organisations, increased communication with stakeholders and tenants, the use of online platforms and greater creativity to deliver essential services.

Reflecting on what this might mean for the future was a small part of these conversations and below are Tai Pawb’s initial thoughts on what members could consider to ensure equality is not just built into, but at the heart of the recovery. These suggestions are by no means final in their nature; indeed, in some cases there are more questions than answers, but we hope members will find them helpful as they reflect on the past four months.

At Tai Pawb, we are structuring our recovery framework around three phases of work which overlap each other: Protect; Recover; Thrive.

It’s undeniable that organisations will need to continue their focus on protecting (and supporting) the wellbeing of staff, tenants and local communities for the foreseeable future. Moreover, it’s clear that the pandemic has and continues to affect different people in different ways. As lockdown restrictions are eased gradually (or in some cases, re-introduced where infection rates rise), it is important to think about the following in particular:

  • Mental health taking account of person-centred and tailored support; keeping the staff team happy and well; and remembering that mental health referral pathways remain open
  • BAME people and communities by carrying out an audit of staff and tenants; choosing the right method of communication; and recognising and addressing the real fear of increased risks posed by the virus 
  • Women looking at the various health and economic impacts together with VAWDASV
  • Disabled people ensuring their experiences, both positive and negative, are understood, be it staff or tenants; and for tenants particularly, recognising and addressing the issues on adaptations to maintain people’s independence in their own homes 

The impact of the virus and the effectiveness of new ways of working will require a period of reflection. It is important to ensure as many diverse people as possible are included in this piece of work, from tenants, through to staff and communities. What’s worked for one group might not have worked that well for others. For example, remote working appears to have had a positive impact for some disabled people however, consideration needs to be given to those who have struggled with working at home and in particular people who suffer domestic violence at home and who, in ordinary circumstances, would have viewed the office environment as ‘safe haven’.

Communication and services
Despite the lack of face-to-face and physical contact as may normally be the case in everyday working environments, in many ways COVID-19 has forced (and helped!) organisations to develop new ways of communicating. Many staff highlighted the changing relationship with tenants and the regular telephone conversations. Some organisations, for example, started delivering live Facebook sessions for tenants to answer their queries while others had identified more vulnerable tenants and maintained weekly or fortnightly contact to offer ongoing support.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has also demonstrated the importance of direct challenge and honest reflection and the impact it can have on organisations and systems. For example, United Welsh had some 80 staff members on a video call to discuss BLM. That number of staff would likely have been difficult to arrange were it face-to-face.

For many disabled people, communication and participation in work and other activities has become easier as some of the physical barriers to attending the workplace and external meetings have been removed; Grace Quantock covered this in an article for IWA. In hosting our own digital events, Tai Pawb has seen a similar impact with members from across Wales able to log into our forums instead of needing to attend a physical location. It also highlights the benefits of data – knowing who you’re supporting in order that an organisation can adapt the way it provides services or communicates.

It’s important that this particular new way of working maintains its momentum, but equally reflects on the inclusivity of online events. Digital exclusion, for example, will be a key issue to address moving forward as not all sections of society have access to modern technology that would enable their participation. We’re aware of asylum seekers, for example, who have been unable to home-school their children as they’ve had no computer or internet access. Investment in this area is paramount.

It’s fair to say that the BLM movement has posed an important challenge to leaders; moreover, it’s highlighted the need for clarity, honest and transparency about shortcomings. This requires a certain kind of leader. Trust is a fundamental aspect of it; control and command systems of management are, in effect, out of the window for many organisations. As we look to build the new basis of trust, it’s hugely important to think of the unconscious biases we may hold as we are prone to implicitly trust people who look and think like us. This bias might be related to diversity but also links to the different levels within an organisation – do we trust those at the frontline or in trades, for example, in the same way as we trust others? How do we build on this? What of the importance of inclusion? In the many functions and activities that an organisation undertakes, there are inevitably ‘insiders’ – those that we tend to consult and include automatically, those ‘in the know’ – and ‘outsiders’, perhaps those with less power or a different style of working or thinking. In many cases, ‘outsiders’ are just that because of the barriers they face to taking part or getting their voices heard.

The knock-on effect of COVID-19 has, in some ways, offered new methods to include people in meetings and activities who previously might not have been.
It’s therefore key to think about who those people are and how to continue involving them. It’s also important in how we celebrate and recognise the remarkable efforts of staff and communities in responding to the crisis – and making sure we include those who, for health or other reasons, perhaps weren’t able to do as much as they would have liked.

It’ll be vital to reflect on who has been the hardest hit financially by the impact of the virus, which may well begin with an analysis of rents data. While there is plenty of evidence looking at the health impacts on older people, it’s clear the brunt of the financial impact will be borne by young people without savings or any financial security. This applies equally to those without secure employment contracts (e.g. zero hours, self-employed). BAME people are far more likely to have insecure employment and so financial inclusion support – both existing and any newly emerging mechanisms – could focus on this particular cohort, as well as considering the more profound impact on certain sectors where furlough and redundancies have been more commonplace

Tai Pawb acknowledges that there is a very real and difficult balance to be struck between financial viability of an organisation and keeping rents manageable for tenants. The unprecedented financial implications for both tenants and organisations themselves shouldn’t – indeed, mustn’t – detract from the many social and charitable purposes so evident within the housing sector.

Agile working
Some people who have been working from home during the crisis are reporting a much better work- life balance, but agility in the workplace will mean different things to different people. As organisations begin to consider a future return to the office (of some sort), how will it be prioritised? Consideration will need to be given to individual health concerns for example, as well as childcare, dependent on government guidelines. It’s also worth asking: who needs the agility? Is homeworking equally safe for everyone? It could be that some employees are experiencing domestic violence at home.

Nobody is underestimating the impact the last few months have had – and will continue to have – on our mental wellbeing; those who were already experiencing mental health issues may struggle more. It is evidenced that women in particular have been bearing an unequal brunt of childcare and work at the same time, while the mental health of both male and female Black, Asian and minority ethnic people has been disproportionally affected as a result of the higher risks associated with the virus. It is important to keep honest and compassionate conversations as part of the ongoing support framework for staff experiencing these feelings and anxieties.

Ultimately, organisations need to reflect on and learn from the many different experiences of agile working to better understand what can work best for both the business and the individual, while all the while promoting inclusivity among colleagues.

Throughout the crisis – in particular in its earlier stages – there have been cohorts of people more vulnerable to the virus, including homeless people. One underpinning element of the crisis is this: homelessness is not inevitable. It’s been pleasing to see governments at both ends of the M4, together with local authorities, RSLs and other support organisations working to provide accommodation for homeless people/rough sleepers. Tai Pawb believes that this strongly supports the principle of a right to adequate housing. The momentum around this particular area of work must be maintained at both a national and local level and, with further investment, can be amplified to ensure we move as quickly – and as sustainably – as possible towards the goal of ending homelessness full stop.

The environment
Reflecting on what’s likely to be increasingly remote ways of working, there will be a positive knock-on impact for the environment through a reduced carbon footprint. Key considerations here should include how any savings might be used and how any excess office space could be used for greater inclusion and possibly partnership working. Could it be offered on a sharing basis to like-minded organisations, charities, social enterprises or self-employed people? Also, what does this mean for travel for meetings – will Zoom calls start to replace trips up and down the M4 or the A470?

Community cohesion and support
While on the face of it, the impact of the virus has been to bring people and communities closer together in their thinking and support of each other, there are of course cohorts of people that have felt left out or forgotten. Data from Disability Wales and the core message behind the BLM movement suggests that not everyone has felt included or involved. Indeed, the past four months have been polarising for some. In conversations we’ve had with members, we’re aware of tremendous community resilience and the building of support networks that previously didn’t exist – but, in some parts, an increase in reports of antisocial behaviour and a feeling of complete isolation from those around them.

Moreover, there have been tensions over the judgement of others perceived to be breaking the lockdown rules – and now, increasingly, very real fears over the wearing of face masks in public places and on transport. As the prevalence of face masks grows, what of those who cannot wear one for medical or sensory reasons, or for people who lip-read? Moving forward, it’s crucial not just to recognise, celebrate and build on the positives but to consider holistically the experiences of as many diverse people as possible to get a true understanding of the impact on individuals and how better they might be supported.

Without properly considering the equality and diversity elements of ‘Protect’ and ‘Reflect’, the benefits of ‘Thrive’ – which is essentially where we all want to get to as quickly as possible – will be less so. Thrive may be mooted by some as a return to ‘business as usual’, financial security, ‘normality’. In reality, thrive should take account of the past four months and: A – build on and enhance pre-existing and newly-emerged positives; B – address pre-existing and newly-emerged negatives so that they’re either tackled and scrapped, or worked on and turned into positives.

In conversations with members, we know that there is a real desire to do away with things that put barriers in the way: what is that we – the collective ‘we’ of staff, tenants and communities – haven’t missed through the pandemic that we no longer should or need to do? Thrive is also an opportunity to tap into something much wider than just the bubble of our own organisations; it should involve from the outset a vision of the type of society we want to live in moving forward and how we can play our part in shaping and making it a reality. There have been countless ‘lessons learnt’ throughout this pandemic; some of them have been hard truths. If we are to really thrive, we do it together and we leave nobody behind.

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