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Diversity and inclusion post-COVID: taking the lessons of COVID forward to our ‘new normal’

I committed to having 100 virtual coffees with leaders and diversity and inclusion experts from around the world. As a result, I have been having some very interesting conversations. My main question is: what will the pivot in diversity and inclusion look like post-COVID?
Maureen Frank headshot.
Maureen Frank - Guest Contributor
2020-12-17

Written by guest blogger Maureen Frank, Chief Disruption Officer at Emberin and Diversity & Inclusion thought leader. Maureen challenges leaders and organisations to get real about inclusion and diversity. She has mentored over 35,000 people worldwide and has a passion for women in leadership and inclusive career development. Her approach to diversity and inclusion is challenging and unique, yet simplifies a complex discussion. 

I committed to having 100 virtual coffees with leaders and diversity and inclusion experts from around the world. As a result, I have been having some very interesting conversations. My main question is:

What will the pivot in diversity and inclusion look like post-COVID?

This is the first article in a series of five, drawing from these conversations, my own research, and my hands-on experience supporting leaders to be more inclusive during the lockdown.

It may be tempting for businesses to see diversity and inclusion as non-essential in their struggle to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. But that would be a big mistake.

The change in emphasis might be unintentional as businesses focus on immediate, existential threats or move to adopt measures around new ways of working, workforce capacity, productivity, and the physical and mental health of their employees.

However, companies that reverse course on diversity and inclusion will put themselves at a severe disadvantage, risking a backlash from customers and employees now, while also limiting their potential for growth and renewal down the line.

As societies and economies prepare for the unknowable post-COVID world, it would be easy to tell ourselves that diversity and inclusion are non-essential add-ons, which we can put to one side until the crisis is over. Yet, recent months have reminded us that agile and flexible approaches to work are key components of surviving a crisis. A diverse and inclusive workforce will be critical to organisational endurance. This means D&I will arguably be more important than ever as we move from shock to emergence from the pandemic’s effects.

Some may argue that a global pandemic is not the time to discuss workplace diversity and inclusion as an imperative for organisations; that there are more pressing issues facing our world. But if you step back and look at what organisations need most right now, perhaps you would shift your view and contend that this moment is precisely the right time to recognise the importance of diversity.

Given this, it’s important to ask:

What are the diversity and inclusion lessons we have learned from COVID that will impact our new normal?

Privilege is invisible to those that have it

If you’re in a position to stockpile, you’re privileged. If you’re ‘not worried about catching the virus because you’re young/fit/healthy’, you’re privileged. Having financial security, the ability to drive, access to a vehicle, good health, and even a reliable internet connection are all signs of privilege that many of us take for granted. 

With millions living in poverty around the world and millions more living with at least one long-term health condition, there are a lot of people (particularly the elderly, those experiencing homelessness, and folks from low-income backgrounds) who have simply not been afforded the same opportunities.

The pandemic has done much to help each of us understand our privilege. Of course, recognising our own privilege is one thing, but it’s what you choose to do with your privilege that really matters!

Inclusive meetings

The need for rigorous inclusion protocols becomes patently obvious on long video-conferencing calls. It is no longer acceptable for a few people to dominate, interrupt, or appropriate ideas. Managers running calls have a duty to ensure a level playing field when they mediate conversations. 

Performance

Feedback, performance and pay evaluations – processes that have often been driven by bias – should become more analytical and metric-based. When the person who casually steps into the manager’s office to brag about their accomplishments can no longer swing by, managers will have the opportunity to be more impartial when handling important career decisions. 

Leadership

Leaders of today must also exhibit more nuanced skills. The old-fashioned, hard-power style of command and control still plays an important role in crisis management. But other abilities such as showing empathy and appreciation, listening, and offering support take on equal importance.

These have typically been seen as soft skills and were less valued traits practised by women as members of the non-dominant group. Today’s most effective leaders will have to embrace both hard and soft skills to address the needs of their employees, customers, communities, and investors.

Flexible working is the future

OK, so this isn’t breaking news, but the reality is many employees have repeatedly been told that their jobs couldn’t be done remotely, only to find out that they actually could. Imagine having a disability or caretaker responsibilities and asking for accommodations at work that would enable you to effectively balance your circumstances while still fulfilling your role. 

Often these accommodations are considered too expensive, impractical, or simply not feasible. Fast forward to the middle of a global pandemic and it's remarkable to see what the majority of businesses are capable of. Not only have many transformed almost overnight to support remote working and the needs of virtual teams, but they have managed to do so quickly and en masse.

The truth is, if more organisations had embraced remote working sooner, the situation with COVID-19 would have been much easier to navigate with less commercial disruption, financial impact, and emotional stress.

Levelling the playing field

COVID-19 hasn’t only affected our physical interactions, but it has also forced a rapid rise in online conferences, training sessions, and community events. While many see this as less engaging than traditional physical events, it could increase participation for working carers who can’t attend evening events in person, folks with autism who need to avoid noisy spaces due to sensitivity to sound, or for those who might find networking overwhelming like introverts and people with depression. 

Digital engagement could be key to broadening participation, reaching a larger geographical spread, and breaking down barriers to access for many.

As we live through this extraordinary moment in history, with unexpected levels of uncertainty and risks not seen for generations, companies that can draw on a wealth of perspectives in their teams — across genders, generations, cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds — will ultimately be prepared for our new collective, global reality.

Globally, we see a lot of dissatisfaction with an approach to diversity & inclusion that doesn’t seem to work. Fortunately, the approach is changing, and we would love to know what you think. Take our Global Diversity and Inclusion Survey to have your say.

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