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Making vulnerable groups a priority in a changing workplace

A critical aspect of supporting staff during Covid has been to listen to them as they articulate their changing needs

They say leaders flourish in times of crisis, and employers around Ireland sprang into action when the coronavirus pandemic began back in March. Employees with disabilities and colleagues struggling with their mental wellbeing or health issues, as well as protected groups and the economically disadvantaged, were all given careful consideration as everyday working life changed overnight.

When the seemingly distant coronavirus became a reality, Dublin City University (DCU) immediately set up a crisis management team. With an immediate move to remote working right across the university, it also shut off the clocking-in system to ensure and enable truly flexible working, says Marian Burns, director of human resources.

“We were conscious that staff would feel pressure to work 9 to 5, which may not be always possible with family commitments,” she says.

Sick leave arrangements were also amended to ensure staff who acquired Covid-19 would be protected, she adds.

Vulnerable groups among the DCU staff cohort include those with young families, those caring for older relatives, those who normally use public transport, those with mental health difficulties, and those with physical disabilities.

Burns says HR maintained a close relationship with occupational health providers to manage high-risk individual situations.

“Every flexibility was afforded to those with caring responsibilities regarding working hours, meeting times etc, and there were special arrangements made for returning to campus for those in high or very high risk groups.”

Mental health seminars were advertised to all staff, while virtual yoga, exercise and mindfulness sessions were advertised on a regular basis.

“All ‘reasonable accommodation’ and supports for those with individual physical or emotional requirements were made available,” adds Burns.

Staff in the visually impaired category have fared quite well with the shift to remote working, says Burns. “Their biggest struggle in the past would have been with paper documents as they cannot use their reader technology as easily. However, given that most processes have been converted online, the technology has worked better for them.”

Staff safety

Similarly, Bord Bia had a very swift response to the Covid crisis, says Tom Tully, industry talent manager.

“When staff safety is at stake no organisation can afford to act slowly. We already had a remote working policy and infrastructure in place thankfully, so all staff were comfortable moving to a remote way of doing business.”

Empathy was key during this time period, Tully says. “Everyone was juggling with having kids or flatmates around them while adjusting to their new working conditions. In many ways it led to a more forgiving and tolerant work culture.”

Bord Bia’s instinct was that staff would want more communication and updates than normal, and Tully says, “staff quickly let us know that this was indeed the case”.

Sessions on how best to maximise remote working, as well as sessions on managing stress and prioritisation, took place, and outside speakers from other industries were invited to give their perspective on self-care during difficult times.

“We also encouraged our managers to over-communicate with their teams during this time as we’re keenly aware of the mental toll the pandemic takes on us all.”

Tully says vulnerable groups were a priority. “We had some staff with health challenges and we very much worked to ensure their welfare came first, ensuring we kept their confidence at all times.”

Remote working can be challenging, admits Cecilia Ronan, CEO Citibank Europe Plc, and Citi country officer for Ireland.

“In Ireland we have had 98 per cent of our people working from home for most of this crisis.” With a large and diverse workforce in Citi Ireland, including over 2,500 people coming from 55 different nationalities, it is inevitable that this would include people who are more vulnerable, says Ronan.

The international bank’s employee-led diversity networks “really stepped up to the plate during this time”, Ronan says.

For example, its Families Matter network partnered with an external provider to provide supports to parents who were working full time while caring for children and home schooling during the lockdown, while Citi Women ran a number of virtual events, focusing on maintaining a positive mindset.

“Our Pride Network ran training sessions with FuSIoN (the Financial Services Inclusion Network) on “managing wellbeing during a pandemic’ and “role modelling inclusive behaviour in challenging times’,” Ronan says, adding that they also celebrated National Coming Out day with a video about transgender activist Philippa Ryder, which was published on internal channels to increase visibility amongst employees.

Its DisAbility Network also ran a virtual event for employees which featured Paralympians Ellen Keane and Jason Smyth, in which they discussed how they were coping as athletes but also as individuals with a disability during the pandemic.

“In the long-term,we will continue to focus on diversity and inclusion as a strategic imperative,” Ronan adds.


Conor McDonnell, Head of HR at Fidelity Investments, says a critical aspect of supporting staff through the pandemic has been an ongoing emphasis on listening to them as they articulate their changing needs.

“We understand that the current period we are all living through is both confusing and difficult for our employees. We have enhanced our benefits to help our employees to be successful in this environment both now and in anticipation of future needs.”

McDonnell explains that Fidelity has put in place a number of employee resource groups (ERGs) for people with common interests or who share an affinity based on similar sets of experiences.

“These are self-organising groups of Fidelity associates and they seek to enhance the understanding of diversity and inclusion in the workplace and promote an environment of mutual respect.

“Based on feedback from the ERG members, these have really come into their own during the challenges of the pandemic.”

According to Sinead Gogan, chief human resources officer at Deloitte, the organisation was acutely conscious that Covid-related challenges were particularly exacerbated for some groups, such as parents and people new to Ireland.

“Some were lone parents and parents whose partners were on the frontline and therefore not available to share childcare duties during the working day,” says Gogan.

Some 20 per cent of Deloitte’s people come from over 60 different countries, and Gogan says a group of 30 people joined the firm a few weeks before lockdown.

“They experienced a different sort of isolation in that they didn’t have a network either within the firm or in their local community. They also have the heightened uncertainty of not knowing when they will be able to travel to see loved ones.”

The company was also aware that their black employees “experienced a lot of pain” in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in the US.

“Although this was not related to the pandemic, the fact that everyone was working remotely made it challenging to have the difficult conversations we wanted and needed to have around race,” Gogan says.

“However, we did start those conversations and have established a new multicultural network that will support us in keeping race and culture on the agenda.”