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Diversity and inclusion post-COVID: we're in this together, but we aren’t experiencing it in the same way

Guest blogger Maureen Frank takes us through the ways COVID will shape the future of diversity and inclusion. This is the second article in a series written by Maureen.
Maureen Frank headshot.
Maureen Frank - Guest Contributor

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 diversity and inclusion. 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 one hundred 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 second article in a series of thoughts, drawing from these conversations, my own research, and my hands-on experience supporting leaders to be more inclusive during the lockdown. 

If you haven’t already, be sure to read the first article in this series, looking at taking the lessons of COVID forward to our new normal

In times of crisis and beyond, a conscious commitment to harnessing the potential of diversity and inclusion is vital. When faced with extreme stress, the standard human reaction is to shut down and close off, not open up. If leaders are to cultivate diversity and inclusion in their organisations, they need to be even warier than usual of contracted, isolating thinking – in themselves and in their teams.

One of the strongest messages to emerge from social distancing and isolation is that humans are at their best when they’re connected and engaged with each other. Diversity and inclusion are the ingredients of deep and meaningful interactions.

This is not fluffy stuff. The business outcomes of a diverse and inclusive workplace culture go beyond feeling good about ourselves. What we’re talking about is greater competitiveness, better results, and ultimately delivering key business objectives, time and time again.

The impact of a crisis is felt differently by different groups of people

For example, the 2008 recession was more immediately felt by men in terms of job losses. Yet, the prolonged cuts to public spending meant lower wages for the female-dominated public sector and a reduction in policies and financial support such as childcare for working mothers. 

Past pandemics, such as Ebola and Zika, also show different impacts for different demographics. The hardest hit have often been women who tend to be the ones caring for the sick at a greater risk to themselves, as well as lower-income households who have worse living conditions and reduced access to medical care.

Recognising that, although ‘we are all in this together’, we are not experiencing it in the same way is the first step to helping leaders create inclusive workplace cultures that are conscious of the crisis’ impact on different employee groups.

Additionally, behaviours that marginalise employees can go even more unnoticed when employees are working remotely. Employees can quickly feel that they are not being heard, are isolated from resources, or are unable to do the same quality or amount of work while working from home.

Inclusive mental health and wellbeing support is urgent

Leaders and managers must be more adept at spotting the signs of stress – their own and others – especially during this time of unrest.

Despite our best efforts to talk more openly about our mental health, there is still a level of stigma attached to it. Some fear it will be perceived as a weakness, while others feel it might hold them back professionally, and many believe that they will be judged unfairly as a result of disclosing information about their mental health.

If the current situation has taught us anything, it’s that none of us is insulated from the stress and anxiety that a global pandemic brings. Whether you’re concerned about loved ones, worried about navigating an ever-changing situation, or trying to stay safe as a vulnerable person, stress and anxiety have been a natural byproduct of COVID.

Many people find themselves in unimaginable circumstances, experiencing loneliness due to social distancing, being impacted by redundancies, or facing significant income challenges. Fortunately, there are many helpful wellbeing resources and tips available during these difficult times, as practising self-care is now more important than ever.

Taking the lessons of COVID forward to our ‘new normal’

Due to global lockdowns, organisations have had no choice but to rapidly adapt their business models, investing in technology to support remote working, while also improving connectivity with their customers and employees. 

With broad recognition that jobs can be performed just as efficiently outside of a nine-hour regular office timetable, we have an opportunity to transform our global working culture, utilising the flexible and remote working structures many of us now have in place. By doing this, not only can we step up progress in diversity and inclusion, thereby building a more creative workforce that can weather the storm, we can also create a better life-work balance.

Because of our inability to truly embrace flexibility, organisations have previously missed out on attracting top talent by shutting out large groups of people, particularly women who are more likely to work part-time because they still shoulder most of the domestic duties in the family. Similarly, people with disabilities and those experiencing physical and mental illness represent a largely untapped talent pool that could greatly benefit from flexible and remote working opportunities.

Flexible work and working from home have long been seen as either necessary or desired by women who shoulder a disproportionate burden of family care. But working from home, once a luxury for some, is now a necessity. Historically, the women (and men) who worked from home were perceived as less committed to their careers. Will this gender-biased assumption now be put to rest when everyone, from the CEO to the administrative assistant, is working from home?

What will responsibility look like at home as some people are laid off and others work from home long past the eight-hour workday? Most people don’t have a home office elegantly framing themselves for a video call, with books and fine art as a halo around them. But we can glimpse into their lives and see that men have generally always played a smaller role in childcare and family obligations. Do stay-at-home dads or male partners learn what their significant others juggle daily? Can there be a long-lasting shift that delegates obligations in a more equitable way?

Communities are actively coming together to help the most vulnerable. We have seen the advantages of working remotely and virtually – and the reductions in pollution. We can use this global shockwave to drive profound change by maintaining positive behaviours, the best agile work patterns, and new perspectives on what is possible. 

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