Tracy Brower Contributor
I write about the changing nature of work, workers and the workplace.
Diversity, equity and inclusion have always been important topics with critical implications for people, businesses and communities, but the pandemic is shining a new light on these issues. The shift in our experience and the new perspectives we gain, provide the opportunity for learning and improvement in the ways companies and individuals embrace diversity and ensure equity and inclusion.
Clarity On The Issues
The pandemic has put these issues in stark relief, and there is a new level of focus based on news reports highlighting how the pandemic is disproportionately impacting disadvantaged groups. Says Michele Meyer-Shipp, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for KPMG (a leading professional services firm) and National Organization on Disability board member, “Leaders are asking, ‘What should I be thinking about?’”
New perspectives are emerging. “The pandemic has elevated disparities and pulled the covers off things occurring in marginalized communities,” says Fannie Glover, Director of Equity and Inclusion at the Early Care and Learning Council of New York. “If you’re living in a one-room apartment with five family members and you test positive for COVID-19, it’s impossible to isolate yourself. If you’re the only bread-winner and you can’t work, your entire family suffers. In addition, if you don’t have a car to go to food banks, nor money for public transportation, you are without food even if it is free.” The issues are significant, and they have a domino effect on each other—from health to income and from transportation to access and more. Glover also provides an example of a Native American community in which members carry water for miles. They are forced to weigh the recommendation to wash their hands for 20 seconds with the additional needs for water they use for cooking, bathing and drinking. Recognition of the conditions is critical. “Those in decision-making positions must understand what’s going on in underserved communities across the nation,” says Glover.
The pandemic has also highlighted additional challenges. According to Agnes Uhereczky, Executive Director of the WorkLife HUB based in Belgium, “The pandemic has shone a light on the more subtle forms of diversity, such as whether somebody is a parent or a caregiver.” Video conferencing has given us a rare window into people’s lives and their homes. They may have their children in the background or they may have a need to flex their work hours to provide care for an aging or sick grandparent. Many leaders are expanding their empathy and compassion for employees as they face more work-life challenges themselves and see first-hand the obstacles their employees face.
In addition to exposing frequently-painful circumstances, the pandemic also has a positive side. With employees working from home, companies have been able to tap into diversity in new ways. For those who have difficulty moving about an office due to physical limitations, barriers are removed. Or for those who have difficulty hearing or seeing colleagues in a conference room setting, the ability to turn up the volume on their laptop or change the view-size on their screen has improved their ability to fully participate. The opportunity for companies to more fully leverage the talent of people like these is promising. “We can reimagine the future of work as it pertains to workforce representation by tapping into untapped and under-tapped talent pools,” says Meyer-Shipp.
How Companies And Individuals Should Respond
The issues are complex, but individuals and companies can embrace the pandemic’s opportunities for learning—and can improve their approaches. “Let’s not ’get back to business as usual’, but think about all that we have been learning these past weeks, and try to integrate our lessons going forward,” says Uhereczky.
Exactly. So how do we take the most effective actions to reimagine the future of work and ensure the greatest levels of diversity, equity and inclusion? You’ll want to find ways to bring together a diverse range of people, give them equal footing and intentionally include their voices. Here are some ideas:
Get educated. Individuals and organizations should get educated and understand the issues as fully as possible. “Organizations need to expand their view of what diversity is,” says Uhereczky. “The workplace is made up of hyper-diversified employees, with very different needs.” This knowledge of differences should drive company approaches, policies and practices. Individuals must learn, be self-aware and be proactive about behaving inclusively. Listen to understand differences and actively seek opportunities to expand your viewpoints. “We all need someone in our lives to tell us what we don’t know,” says Glover.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Seek opportunities to be with those who are different than yourself. Companies can do this by expanding approaches to recruiting, selection and hiring. When a company says, “That person is just not a fit,” it may be a signal it is not embracing differences, and there is an opportunity to improve practices. For individuals, expanding diverse relationships is key. Says Glover, “We need to avoid ‘just like me syndrome’ in which we seek out those who are similar and avoid differences.” Growth and learning are only possible when we spend time with others who are different than ourselves and listen to understand the reality of someone who may be in situations unfamiliar to us. “We must become comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says Glover.
Build trust and acceptance. People need to feel they are welcomed and are valued as part of the community. “Employees want to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of being valued as an integral part of a team or company,” says Uhereczky. Psychological safety is critical—the feeling that people can bring all of themselves to their work experience and express opinions that may be unpopular. Companies and leaders have roles to play in building trust and acceptance. “As leaders, we must strive to create psychologically safe environments. Our responsibility as leaders is to ensure that all of the voices are acknowledged and heard,” says Mita Mallick, Head of Diversity and Cross-Cultural Marketing at Unilever. Another expert agrees. Bronwen Evans, Chief Talent Officer with MedCan, a leading health management company in Canada, says, “With the vast majority of our talent working remotely through the pandemic, we’ve had to double down on our thinking of what it means to create an environment of inclusivity and a sense of belonging.” As individuals, whether leaders or team members, our acceptance of those who are different contributes to this inclusivity and sense of community.
Provide for different approaches to work. Companies and individuals can also expand how they accommodate different ways of working. This may pertain to when people work, how they work, where they work or even what project they are tackling. According to Meyer-Shipp, KPMG has empowered employees to have a blended workday. They can take time off during the day to provide care to a family member, for example, or help a child with school work. It’s important to meet employees where they are and address their unique needs. Employees’ needs differ. Mallick adds, “We have to remember that everyone is on their own COVID-19 journey. Our journeys are not comparable.” Colleagues can collaborate and work together while also being flexible and accommodating.
Expand the ways in which people can contribute. Companies and leaders have the opportunity to reinvent how people contribute in terms of their roles and their responsibilities. Evans says, “Because our business has had to adapt so quickly by offering most of our services remotely, we’ve had to redeploy talent to different areas of the business, providing us with the opportunity to understand and appreciate broader skill sets.” The responsibilities people are being asked to fulfill are changing at a rapid pace, and along with a certain level of chaos, comes the chance to provide new ways for people to stretch their skills and apply their talents.
Support people with tools and practices. The ability for people to contribute is partly based on having the right tools and programs. Meyer-Shipp says KPMG provides the necessary technology, desks, keyboards or captioning for employees working from home with no questions asked. Mental health is also critical, and KPMG has expanded employee assistance programs, offers weekly mental health webinars and makes all kinds of support available from text-based counseling to meditation and online exercise classes. In New York, Glover’s agency and its members have also stepped up by providing key information about protocols for child care services to essential businesses.
Invite people to the table. As leaders and companies develop policies and practices, it is important to ensure people who will be served by the approaches are part of the decision-making processes to create them. “We need people who are in the trenches, not just those who have knowledge of the trenches,” says Glover. Multiple points of view are must-haves in decision making. Chris Beck, Chief Operating and Financial Officer for Caldwell Partners International, a global talent recruitment firm says, “Diversity benefits us by ensuring decisions are made with input from many lenses. When it comes down to it, no one should be making leadership decisions without having a representative group guiding them along the way.” Mallick agrees saying, “We need to remind ourselves that diversity of thought around the table doesn’t happen without diversity of representation.” Include participants from multiple perspectives and with first-hand experience of challenges, struggles or different realities.
The pandemic provides a significant opportunity to increase our awareness about diversity, and to expand our capacity for empathy and compassion toward members of our whole community. This is important for people, but also for a company’s results. Whether you’re an individual who wants to be a better ally or an organization challenged with ensuring you tap into the best talent, you can get educated, include those who are different than yourself, build trust, expand the way you accommodate work, support people holistically and ensure a seat at the table. We will get through the pandemic together and if we take the right steps, we can have a powerfully positive impact on a future which includes more diversity, equity and inclusion.
She is a Ph.D. sociologist exploring perspectives on work-life and fulfillment. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations, and a principal with Steelcase’s Applied Research + Consulting group. In addition to speaking and writing about the changing nature of work, workers and workplace, She also devote time as an executive advisor to the MSU Master of Industrial Mathematics Program and Coda Societies. In addition to her Ph.D. and MM, She hold a Master of Corporate Real Estate with a specialization in workplace. You can find her work in TEDx, Work-Life Balance in the 21st Century, The Wall Street Journal, The Globe and Mail (Canada), InsideHR (Australia), Training Magazine, The CoreNet Leader, Facility Executive, Work Design Magazine, Real Estate Review Journal, Fortune.com, Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, and more. Please feel free to reach out if you would like to connect Tracy Brower !
Disclosure: Smita Nair Jain has nothing to disclose. She doesn’t own stock in any publicly traded companies and does not hold investments in the technology companies. She has equivalent of the American 401(k) plan in India that is automatically managed. (Updated: May 28, 2020)
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