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Is D&I the answer to the COVID crisis?

This article first appeared in People Management >

The coronavirus pandemic has helped us see each other in a more human way, and businesses that get inclusion right will be more likely to survive, says Cal Whaley 

The Covid-19 crisis is triggering a recession on a massive scale. One way companies can improve their chances of exiting this in good shape is by having a diverse, inclusive company. Right to the top.

Great Place to Work recently analysed the share performance of large corporates between 2007 and 2009 which had focused on having an equitable culture. While the S&P 500 saw a 35 per cent drop in stock performance, diverse companies saw a 14 per cent gain – during a recession.

In a crisis, you have to focus on what’s vital. It’s easy to say, of course, that diversity and inclusion is essential and we should all invest in our people. However, for many organisations, the truth is if they don’t manage costs, they won’t have any people.

D&I isn’t an obvious profit centre, and can require an investment to establish. Yet in the long run, it has the potential to generate more revenue. As HR and senior management plan the transition out of lockdown, employees will remember what they did and how they felt as a result. If people feel they belong, they will feel more engaged, more loyal and deliver. As many businesses fight for their lives, this buy-in will be worth more than ever.

Challenges and opportunities

The first step is being aware of the challenges. Someone who’s already likely to be marginalised in the workplace, whether on the basis of gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, disability or otherwise, is at an even higher risk of this when working remotely. It’s easy to feel isolated, and issues escalate more quickly without face-to-face interaction. 

At the same time, the remote office can be a more democratic environment. Skilfully chaired video meetings, for example, can provide a platform for disenfranchised voices to be heard, rather than simply the loudest. For people with physical disabilities, remote working can reduce the number of daily challenges with accessibility. There’s a chance for people to be evaluated by results, rather than simply showing up. 

By recognising the opportunities amid the crisis, companies can start to shift their culture to come out the other side stronger, more diverse and more human.

The way forward

Inclusion must not be a box-ticking exercise; it has to be embedded in your corporate DNA. In many ways, the ongoing lockdown has helped kickstart this process.

Firstly, leaders are starting to see their people on a more personal level, becoming more aware of their circumstances than ever. In some cases, this may be the daily challenges they face. In others, it’s finding out they have a dog and three kids. This is a good chance to develop better relationships.

A lot of organisations have discovered a previously unrecognised or unexplored ability to be flexible. This is particularly welcome for working parents who have been fighting for flexible working for years. As we transition out of lockdown, it’s important not to lose sight of what elements of remote working have been successful and how to incorporate these regularly.

While so many of us have become reliant on conferencing tools, these aren’t for everyone. Being on camera in calls with large groups can be uncomfortable, isolating and inefficient. Not everyone needs to be on every call. Using different forms of communication can help people feel more included and heard. On a recent webinar, the facilitator said ‘there’s no obligation to have our videos on…’ I turned my camera off and it was lovely; I was able to focus on listening. Don’t expect people to be naturally effective at leading calls; training can make a significant difference.

Using those other methods of communication also allows you to ask key questions which allow people to speak their minds. A lot of us aren’t going to be open in a call with ten other people or when we’re on screen being watched. However, on a one-to-one phone call, when you ask how someone is really doing, you’re more likely to get an honest response. If you’re in a larger group call, for instance, pairing people up in break-out groups can encourage this. Sometimes, people are more likely to be honest and share their thoughts when the boss isn’t present, so consider who’s present in a meeting and how this might affect the dynamic.

Finally, understand the difference between leading from the front and leading from the side, knowing when to switch between them. In a crisis, people freeze and can become a liability. During these times, you may need to lead from the front, being decisive and directive. However, as you start planning for the future, you need to bring your people with you; a different approach is needed. To see the other side of the crisis, companies need to get the best out of their teams. Leading from the side with transparency and honesty can cultivate this.

The pandemic has started a shift in how we view community, wellbeing and each other. It’s time to weave D&I into corporate culture and values, rather than viewing it as a bolt-on. Don’t let it become a missed opportunity. 

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