Keeping Equity a Priority During the COVID-19 Crisis
by Mary-Margaret Zindren, CAE
The architecture community has taken significant steps to make equity, diversity and inclusion a top priority in the profession. How true that priority really is will be tested by this COVID-19 crisis.
Now is the time for firms and employers to apply the knowledge gained about inequities in architecture, to be open to new understanding about how these inequities affect employees and project teams, and to take action to ensure equity remains at the forefront during the acute impact of the pandemic and over the longer term of economic upheaval.
The pandemic crisis and its impacts on health and the economy are extraordinarily wide-ranging and, in many ways, have yet to play out. The prompts that follow are intended as a starting point in identifying concerns related to the pandemic that have direct implications for equity in the profession of architecture. The hope is to spark more conversation, analysis and action; to spur better questions and answers in the weeks and months to come.
Who among our employees might be more vulnerable to direct pandemic impacts – more susceptible to catching and/or suffering severe illness from COVID-19?
- People over 65 have been identified by the public health community as being at greater risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. This heightened risk requires great attention to be paid to social distancing and other measures to reduce the chance of becoming infected. With architecture being a profession that is practiced successfully well past the age of 65, many members of the architecture community are at risk.
- People who have an underlying chronic disease (e.g., respiratory diseases, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, diseases that compromise the immune system) are more vulnerable to COVID-19. This is especially true forpeople of color and Native Americans due to underlying health challenges related to generational poverty and discrimination (e.g., diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma) being compounded by a history of underdiagnosis and undertreatment of people of color and Native Americans in the medical system, as well as a history of medical research without consent. The NAACP and other organizations have raised concerns about potential discrimination in COVID-19 testing and treatment. https://www.naacp.org/coronavirus/
- Employees who are asked to perform office-based work during the pandemic – whether because the organization lacks a full range of work-from-home technology solutions, or they are asked to perform traditionally office-based tasks such as dealing with mail, billing, or cleaning – due to the potential for a higher level of human contact and less control over the surfaces they touch (often relying on others they don’t know to keep high-touch areas in buildings and parking ramps clean and disinfected).
- Employees who are asked to go to job sites to do on-site project work. (Here is AIA’s guidance in mitigating the risks of site-based work https://www.aia.org/articles/6282722-architect-standard-of-care-relative-to-sit.)
Who might be more vulnerable to indirect pandemic impacts?
- Women in the U.S. – across all income groups, races and ethnicities – carry a greater share of caregiving and household responsibilities. With children now needing to be schooled from home and elderly loved ones at increased health risk, women in architecture face unprecedented challenges in integrating work and life responsibilities.
- Women who are pregnant are also at risk of not being able to get the medical assistance they need if they become ill, due to impacts of COVID-19 on the medical system overall.
- People of Asian descent have been experiencing an exponential increase in harassment and discrimination during the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from more passive forms, such as extreme social distancing, to more aggressive verbal and physical harassment and violent crime. Thousands of bias-driven incidents have already been documented across the nation. Whether an employee has directly experienced harassment or discrimination, or they are feeling increased concern about going out in public, their mental and physical health could be impacted.
- Economically-impacted people of color and Native Americans are less likely to have accumulated generational wealth, due to discriminatory policies and practices, and as a result have fewer financial resources to draw upon during times of crisis. Being able to weather the economic ups and downs of the architecture profession sometimes requires turning to relatives for economic support or leveraging homeownership to get a loan. These options are more available to white people than to people of color and Native Americans.
- People who struggle with anxiety, depression, addiction, or other mental illnesses are many – one in five Americans already had mental health conditions heading into the pandemic – and the supports they usually rely upon to stay healthy may be less accessible during social distancing or due to financial impact. The nature of the pandemic is also significant societal change, which can trigger episodes and cause people in recovery to relapse.
- Lower income and highly debt-burdened people within the profession and who work in other capacities in architecture firms or other organizations may be less able to connect to highspeed internet or to have multiple laptops at home. This can affect remote homeschooling and regular connection to fellow employees. These individuals also face more significant financial uncertainty and stress.
- People with disabilities or who are differently abled (such as individuals with autism) may require accommodations to do their work most effectively in an office setting, and similar accommodations may be needed in work-from-home set-ups as well. People with disabilities and who are differently abled also often need access to medical professionals and to medical equipment on a regular basis. With many clinics not taking regular appointments, telemedicine being a new approach for many providers and patients, and delays in gaining access to medical supplies, people with disabilities or who are differently abled may experience more health concerns during this pandemic.
- People who are LGBTQ+ have been targeted by some evangelical Christian leaders who blame COVID-19 on broader societal changes that have benefited the LGBTQ+ community. This has the potential to grow homophobia, hate speech, and hate crimes. Also, a history of discrimination and mistrust between people who are LGBTQ+ and the medical community can cause hesitation in seeking medical treatment, and therefore heighten the health impacts from COVID-19.
- People experiencing domestic violence – an often ignored yet very real issue among well-educated, white collar workers – are at greater risk during this time. Domestic violence is of growing concern due to stay-at-home orders and the overall stress levels induced by the pandemic. Calls to domestic violence hotlines are on the rise.
- Students of architecture and recent graduates who do not have family support systems in the U.S. are at risk in terms of less access to caregivers if they become ill and higher financial stress related to layoffs or a pause in hiring. They may be ineligible for many of the governmental support programs created or expanded to address pandemic impacts, due to their immigration status. For students and new graduates of Asian descent, this vulnerability is compounded by the rise in anti-Asian bias.
- People who live alone and rely upon seeing friends and colleagues as their social connection point may be more likely to experience negative mental health impacts during times of social distancing.
How can we respond to these direct and indirect impacts on our employees? What supports can we provide?
- Continue to provide healthcare benefits to your employees for as long as your business can sustain this expense.
- Make mental health a priority in your engagement with employees. Ensure regular communications with the whole of your employee group and one-on-one check-ins as well. Reach out to retired employees, too, as people over 65 face greater isolation. Refamiliarize yourself and your team with the Employee Assistance Program that may be available through your health benefits provider. Consider providing, as an additional benefit, subscriptions to web-based mental health services or meditation apps. Remembering that humans are resilient can be helpful, and individual and group therapy sessions are now being held virtually. Be authentic about your own mental health challenges to reduce the stigma often associated with anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. And recognize that virtual happy hours may be helpful to many in staying connected but also think about gathering virtually for coffee or for other activities that are more inclusive for people struggling with addiction or depression.
- Recognize openly that productivity during this time will be reduced overall; that productivity will vary day to day, and week to week; and that each employee’s work-from-home situation, caregiving responsibilities, and financial situation is unique. Build this into your project planning and recognize that this reduced and less predictable productivity is true for your clients as well.
- Make sure to review and comply with EEOC guidance regarding ADA compliance, especially related to health privacy considerations and accommodations for disability that need to be created or maintained.
How do we make job assignments equitably during a time when we know some employees are more pandemic-burdened than others?
- Ask, don’t assume, whether an employee is interested in and available to complete a job assignment or to be assigned a particular role – and make it clear that it is a genuine question, not a directive masked in a question. Recognize and guard against automatic societal bias that women need to be primary caregivers to young children or to elderly loved ones, and do not make assumptions about the degree to which such responsibilities are manageable. Leave it up to the individual to assess their situation and to respond. Also, do not assume that the answer at one point in time related to a particular job assignment or project role will hold true in the future.
- Because of the additional risks of severe COVID-19 health impacts faced by people with underlying health conditions, employers or managers may be inclined to inquire about such conditions; this is expressly prohibited by law. Employers cannot ask whether employees have underlying medical conditions that could make them vulnerable to complications from the COVID-19 virus in a manner that would violate health privacy requirements. However, the EEOC has developed an ADA-compliant survey that can be asked of employees; it is described as a “pre-pandemic” survey but appears to be easily modifiable to inform return-to-work decisions related to this wave of the pandemic, or could be used before another wave that may require a new stay-at-home order. The survey includes questions related to caregiving for children or others, reliance on public transportation, or having a high risk for serious complications from the virus, due to underlying medical conditions. https://www.eeoc.gov/facts/pandemic_flu.html.
How should we think about performance evaluations and promotions – in the near term and the longer term?
- Consider suspending your usual timelines and approach to performance evaluations and promotions during the pandemic and starting the “clock” over again once business operations have returned to normal. Women, people of color, Native Americans, people with disabilities, people over 65, and others face numerous and potentially severe impacts from the pandemic and its financial fallout. Merit increases or promotions based on who was able to be most productive or to produce the highest-quality work during the pandemic crisis could widen the gaps in pay and leadership positions that the profession has been working to address.
What about hiring and mentoring?
- One of the most profound learnings from the Great Recession is the importance of keeping the architecture community together. As employers work hard to keep their current employees, it is important to also recognize that new graduates and students of architecture are at great risk of being left behind. The diversity of architecture schools has been increasing; years-long efforts to grow and sustain the pipeline of people of color in the profession have started to be realized. If your firm has already put forward offers to new graduates or to students for summer internships, do all you can to make good on those offers. If you have frozen hiring, encourage employees – and retired employees – to engage with students and new graduates as mentors, from more formal portfolio reviews to casual virtual coffee meetings. Paid employment in the field of architecture is what students and new graduates are most in need of; if that is not possible for your organization at this time, commit to other actions that keep these individuals connected to the profession they have invested so much in pursuing.
- Recognize that the many U.S. architecture students and new graduates who were born and raised in Asian countries face unique stresses. Being far away from family support systems and dealing with increased anti-Asian bias in the media and in everyday life makes these young people particularly vulnerable. Make extra efforts to connect with and to mentor Asian students and new graduates.
Are there any silver linings to look forward to?
- Social distancing may reset the norms around what is appropriate in terms of greetings and displays of warmth among professional colleagues. Long a source of discomfort and frustration among professional women, it could be that unwelcome hugs and kisses on the cheek will be less second nature going forward. There is risk that other forms of touching – such as shoulder rubs – could become more common. This is a practice that, from recent research conducted by the Center for Worklife Law, in conjunction with the AIA, appears to already be more common in the profession of architecture than other professions, and it is a form of touching that is well-recognized as creating discomfort for women in the context of professional relationships and could be viewed as sexual harassment. Warm handshakes and fist bumps, paired with diligent handwashing, may be our best, most respectful path forward.
- Remote work will likely become more accepted. Skill in holding remote meetings in an inclusive manner has increased dramatically and video meetings have become the norm. Because so many in the architecture community will have learned how to be productive in working remotely, there will be shared experience to draw from in making the case for remote options on an ongoing basis.
- We will better recognize our commonalities and our differences. Never before have work colleagues known each other so well and recognized our multi-dimensional nature. From remote meetings by video that have introduced us to the pets, children, and wall art of our team members, to more openness about the challenges we face, the pandemic has created more deep and authentic connections – connections that have the potential to be maintained for the long term.
The pandemic has in many ways been an equalizing force. It has brought forward our shared humanity and common purpose. The number of people who are self-quarantining and abiding by social distancing measures to further the common good is inspiring. It is also true that the pandemic is shining a light on existing, longstanding inequities and biases in our society that are having disproportionate impacts. Leaders in architecture – throughout the profession, not just those in positional leadership – can make a real difference in recognizing threats to equity, diversity and inclusion and in taking action to address those threats before they manifest in greater disparities and inequities.