In times of extreme stress, we tend to go into survival mode. Business is no different. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, thousands of companies have been fighting to stay afloat. Many that had implemented a diversity and inclusion strategy in better times began to focus on more immediate matters. But D&I has never been more important. Here are some points to consider as we adapt to the ‘new normal’.
The stress is different
Employees working remotely are subject to all kinds of new stresses. Lack of working space, home-schooling recalcitrant kids, caring for relatives who may be sick and above all, isolation. If an individual from a minority group was supported by the D&I structure in the workplace, they could be feeling completely cut off after three months with no actual face-to-face contact.
Understand individual situations
Don’t assume that all of your team members have a similar experience when working from home. Instead, ask all team members, but minority groups in particular, for feedback and discuss the issues they are facing. Managing a team is much easier if the manager understands the challenges faced by individual members. For example, many women in lockdown still say the burden of home schooling falls on them, which leads to problems with scheduling. People with disabilities are statistically more likely to live in poverty. Do they have the tools they need to work from home? Individuals of Asian ethnicity have been subject to heightened racism since the outbreak of Covid-19. People from BAME communities may be living in heightened fear of falling ill. Anybody suffering from mental illness may feel their problems are intensified with the disruption in routine and may be struggling to cope outside their normal structure. Are they getting the help they need?
Be aware of unconscious bias
Economic anxiety is obviously a big issue. What factors are influencing your decisions on who to furlough or lay off? Are you aware of unconscious bias seeping into these decisions? It’s all too easy to furlough individuals who might not be functioning at their normal level, but there is almost always a reason for this – caring for sick or elderly relatives, lack of workspace at home – and for some, living with domestic abuse.
Set the ground rules for social gatherings
On a social level in the workplace, be aware of the dynamics of virtual team drinks, the banter and joke–sharing on team chats, political ranting and the balance of power in any group. Exclusion of individuals, cyber-bullying and sexual harassment can all get out of control in a virtual workplace. Team leaders need to set boundaries for work-related social events to avoid the group excluding minorities, or causing offence with inappropriate memes.
Think about messaging
Marketing communications, which may have been complex and carefully planned before Covid-19, have in many cases fallen through the floor. Messages addressed at diverse communities are being lost as advertising spend is either cancelled or reduced to the generic. Always remember that your marketing messages should reflect the diversity of your customer base – and make those messages appropriate to the reality your customer base is facing. The same applies to internal communication.
Embrace the positive
There is an upside. Look at how the ‘new normal’ might benefit diversity. Perhaps individuals feel more empathy with co-workers with this glimpse into one another’s home lives. Virtual meetings, if managed sensitively, can be a positive experience for individuals who have struggled to be heard in the office, provided the team leader establishes a system of taking turns to speak. Age barriers are dissolving as younger, more technically minded employees assist older workers in using new technology.
Plan for the future
Think about how the return to the office might affect individuals. People of BAME heritage might feel insecure using public transport or sharing office space for fear of lack of social distancing. The same applies to older people, who may feel more vulnerable, or employees who are caring for elderly parents. Once discussions begin about the new arrangements, include all minority groups in the planning and logistics.
Keep D&I in the spotlight
In conclusion, rather than let your D&I policy revert to basics, find ways to adapt and improve it, given that the ‘new normal’ is likely to keep a lot of employees working remotely. Make D&I a board level issue, not an HR concern or a feature of your CSR statement. Remember that companies and teams embracing diversity and inclusion have been proven time and time again to be more creative, more innovative and more adaptable. Diversity and inclusion needs to be part of your story, not just in the good times but in tough times, too.
WRITTEN BY SUE BRYANT
Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.