Business leaders have been battling fires on numerous fronts as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. From interrupted supply chains to the unprecedented shift to remote working, companies have been forced to work through a whole host of unforeseen challenges.
Yet one major effect of the crisis has taken place away from media headlines: in just a few short months, we have seen the unravelling of decades of progress when it comes to diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace.
In a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey conducted back in April 2020, approximately two fifths of UK employers admitted that their prior investment in D&I would help them respond effectively in a crisis to employee needs and customer needs.
And yet, an active focus on D&I has quickly slipped down the list of business priorities.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, 14% of employers put this consideration in their top three HR priorities – a figure that dipped to just 5% only one month into lockdown. This comes at a time when we should be paying more, not less, attention to how workplace cultures oppress marginalised groups.
Women and minorities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 – that much we already know. Not only are these groups more likely to work in the roles and industries that have been most affected (namely, the hospitality sector and social care industry), but many women have also had to juggle their professional responsibilities with increased childcare commitments.
A survey conducted by University College London found that women spent more than twice as much time as men on their children’s home schooling and development during the UK lockdown. They were also “considerably more likely” to have given up working than fathers with children of the same ages.
It is evident that the pandemic has served to expose weaknesses in society that were always present. If we don’t act fast, we risk erasing the progress that has been made to narrow the inequality gaps that continue to plague the workplace.
So What Can Businesses Do?
In such turbulent times, when the very notion of ‘business as usual’ has been turned on its head, it can be easy to overlook the importance of fostering an inclusive workplace culture.
But the time to act is now. Indeed, this reset of what we consider to be ‘normal’ working practices is perhaps the best opportunity to engage in some introspection and explore how we can create a culture that enables disadvantaged groups to thrive.
First and foremost, businesses must lead with compassion. This involves giving managers the tools they need – whether this is extra training or resources – to better support employees as they navigate the post-COVID-19 environment.
By extension, it also involves increasing communication with employees to give them the opportunity to ask questions and make suggestions about the kind of support they might need. A human-centric approach will ensure that everyone’s voices are heard, and that businesses can come to mutual arrangements with their staff whereby individual difficulties are properly addressed.
Secondly, businesses must be flexible. As remote working becomes normalised, it is important that employees are given greater control over their working lives so they can build a healthier work-life balance.
After all, some employees may have specific needs based on their situations: working mothers, for instance, might want to shift around their working hours so they can separate child care from their professional responsibilities.
If large sections of the workforce continue to work from home, it is also important to be conscious that everyone has a clear role to play in projects, and that professionals have the same opportunities to participate in decision-making as they would have done in a traditional office setting. It is easy to overlook the fact that groups that are already marginalised in the office, might feel even more socially isolated when working remotely.
Indeed, in a recent study by EY, 39% of respondents said that they feel the greatest sense of belonging when colleagues check in with them about how they are doing, both personally and professionally. Replicating personal social interactions in a virtual setting might take more initiative given the non-existent opportunity for ‘water cooler talk’, but it will certainly go a long way to building a more inclusive environment.
And finally, true progress cannot be made without investing the time and energy required to truly get to the bottom of what is holding some groups back. Now is not the time to pause diversity initiatives: it is the time to expand them, and adapt them to the “new normal”.
It would be wise to develop a diversity plan that is both actionable and measurable, as keeping tabs on metrics will hold companies accountable. While it is not currently a legal requirement to have a written diversity policy, it would help create a strategic plan of action with key metrics mapped out. After all, it is time for businesses to monitor diversity and inclusion as they would any other key performance indicator.
For instance, companies could start by producing guidelines for inclusive virtual communications. This would give them the opportunity to highlight the importance of active listening, to ensure that people from underrepresented backgrounds are truly heard. Something as simple as introducing Zoom meeting etiquette will pay dividends in the long-run by giving people the confidence to voice concerns that they might have – and make suggestions for change.
Many businesses have long paid lip service to diversity, yet the issue is still as rampant as ever. We must seize this once in a lifetime opportunity, and work to establish a post-COVID-19 working environment with diversity at the forefront of our minds. Only through concerted efforts can we stop the dramatic backslide in workplace equality and look to an equal future.