The global pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests provide a complex backdrop for the ongoing work to create more equal , diverse and inclusive workplaces . What happens next ?
Words : Clare Grist Taylor
When , in June 2020 , a football referee blew his whistle to signal
the restart of the UK ’ s pandemic-interrupted Premier
League , something extraordinary happened : all 22 players ‘ took the knee ’ in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter ( BLM ) campaign , given unfortunate impetus by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota at the end of May .
They had already swapped their back-of-jersey surnames for the BLM message ( that , in an ideal world , simply wouldn ’ t need saying ). It ’ s a trend mirrored in other sporting arenas , including the US ’ s mighty NBA ; a powerful symbol of the anti-racism debates that have vied with the COVID-19 pandemic for the year ’ s headlines .
Top sporting leagues may seem a million miles away from the average workplace , but there ’ s no doubt that 2020 has been a year in which events have conspired to make us all look again at our diversity and inclusion ( D & I ) agendas and plans . Against the backdrop of BLM and the pandemic , the concept of employee wellbeing has taken on a more literal meaning , the greatest ever experiment in mass remote working has delivered the flexible working many under-represented groups have been asking for , and barriers to regional and cultural diversity have been lower than ever before .
But it has also been a year when under-represented groups have borne the brunt of job losses , gender pay-gap reporting has come to an abrupt halt , and the combination of homeworking and home-schooling has threatened to derail many a woman ’ s career . With economies around the world contracting , there ’ s a sense that D & I might be yet another casualty of the downturn : nice to have when times are good , but a dispensable luxury when belt tightening is in order .
In the early stages of the pandemic , writer and broadcaster Trevor Phillips wrote that the trauma of the pandemic was likely to have two effects : “ The first is to accelerate change that is already on the way . The second is to exacerbate the existing divisions in society .”
COVID has created strong bonds and goodwill we simply can ’ t afford to lose when it comes to inclusion
When it comes to D & I , will we look back on 2020 as a year when we really were all in it together , or one of mixed progress at best , even retrenchment ? With everything up for grabs , how will organisations build on any progress made and heal what journalist Katie Jacobs calls “ a fracturing of the workforce ”, bringing together , both physically and psychologically , workforces that may have had very different experiences of 2020 ?
Despite the challenges , for many D & I teams , progress made in 2020 represents the single biggest opportunity in a generation to secure long-term change in the way that work is designed and executed – and they feel that now is the time to push home their advantage .
Emma Francis , D & I lead at Zurich UK , reports that her team has “ achieved more in six months than we otherwise could have done in 18 ”. The company may already have bought into the need for a diverse workforce as a key to a sustainable future , but , despite 2020 being a time of uncertainty and anxiety , it has also been a time when the business has responded as a team , and when people have felt closer to the organisation and more empowered . The challenge now is to “ make the most of the opportunities 2020 has opened up ”.
The demise of presenteeism ?
Nowhere is that challenge more evident than when it comes to flexible and remote working . Cultures of presenteeism have been well and truly questioned , as offices have closed and organisations have had no choice but to make the most of people working from home ( WFH ) where they possibly can .
Paul Modley , Alexander Mann Solutions ’ Head of D & I , is clear that the pandemic has shown that people can be just as productive WFH – and , mostly , they like the extra flexibility it can bring . “ Despite the extra pressures many have had to face when working from home during the pandemic – from childcare and home-schooling to lack of space and isolation – it ’ s impossible to ignore the fact that , overall , greater flexibility has been a positive for the majority of workers ,” he says .
It ’ s a view backed up by survey after survey , with the most popular option for a post-pandemic working life being a hybrid of the positives of being with colleagues some of the time and the flexibility of not having to commute five days a week . And this time , organisations are listening too – and not just the usual tech-giant suspects such as Google or Facebook .
As Modley says , when we see the likes of financial services giant Schroders heeding the flexible working call , we know something has shifted . It seems that we ’ re heading for a jettisoning of expensive city-centre real estate as offices morph from default work locations into collaborative spaces . A recent Management Today survey revealed that UK business leaders see two days a week in the office as sufficient time to sustain company culture .
The question is : is this trend a wholly good thing for inclusion ? There ’ s no doubt that a greater acceptance of flexible working has the potential to be a career changer for under-represented groups such as women with caring responsibilities , people with disabilities for whom commuting is a serious challenge , and anyone whose geographical location has , to date , been a barrier to progression . But much , of course , depends on what happens next , as we come out of the pandemic and adjust longer term .
Writing in Harvard Business Review , Herminia Ibarra , Julia Gillard and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic look at why WFH may not , after all , be the great equaliser for women it might promise . They identify what they call the triple “ trip-wire ” threats that more women working from home might face : increased work / family conflict , a lack of access to informal networks , decision making and the best assignments , and a new form of ‘ presenteeism ’, where that blend of office and remote working has the potential for “ a gender skew with men disproportionately in the office or on the road , very visibly contributing to the business , while women are out of sight and mind ”.
The authors are clear that the promise of WFH can be realised , but only if we are alert to the pitfalls and take action to maximise the benefits , while minimising the risks . They call for a series of measures , including the careful collection and analysis of employee data , challenging gender assumptions around things such as parenting , educating managers and – crucially – focusing on outputs .
Above all , we need to guard against the very real danger of creating a two-tier workforce . At Zurich , Emma Francis also understands that with the awareness that more flexible working is here to stay comes the responsibility for making sure that people in multiple locations feel engaged and included . It ’ s a change of mindset underpinned by an explicit acknowledgement that , in future , they will need to accommodate and manage a variety of working arrangements . Flexible working is not new for Zurich , but the pandemic has accelerated the trend ; the challenge now is to make it work in ways that support rather than challenge inclusion .
I think we will look back at this period and realise just how damaging it has been for some sections of our society
Shyamala Shukla , director of talent acquisition at US-based medical device company Medtronic , is determined that the pandemic-imposed shift to more flexible business models should not jeopardise the progress made to gender , regional and cultural diversity in recent years . Instead , initiatives such as their global programmes to attract and develop female talent and the Medtronic Women ’ s Network ( MWN ) have been mobilised to support women through lockdown – as well as meeting business needs . An internal-first approach to talent and redeployment has created new opportunities for women , and changes to working practices have led to what Shukla calls an “ empathy dividend ”.
As elsewhere , the pandemic has been challenging for women , but with a range of informal and formal interaction , toolkits for managers and plenty of peer-to-peer support , changes to working practices have been normalised and the organisation has learned important lessons about how best to integrate women into the workforce . Conversations about the safe return to work now routinely include topics such as leave policies that take into account caring responsibilities and long-term flexible-working cultures . “ It ’ s about creating the right levels of psychological safety to enable a balancing of home and work life ,” says Shukla . “ COVID has created strong bonds and goodwill we simply can ’ t afford to lose when it comes to inclusion .”
Black lives really do matter
If COVID has transformed the world of flexible working , 2020 ’ s twin focus on Black Lives Matter has had a similarly seismic effect on conversations about ethnicity and racism in the workplace .
Suki Sandhu , founder and CEO of D & I champions INvolve , says that , in recent months , he has had “ honest conversations with business leaders about black inclusion which never would have happened before BLM ”. Companies and business leaders who might previously have ducked the issue have seen the need to engage properly and take real action on racial inequality in their organisations .
Talk , though , is cheap . Sandhu has also been at the forefront of securing a commitment from companies by inviting top CEOs ( 44 and counting ) to sign an open letter committing to action to end “ systematic racism and discrimination ” in their organisations . The letter calls for initiatives such as the proper collection of ethnicity data to show where the real challenges lie and allow for the tracking of progress . It also commits signatories to setting targets for black talent on candidate slates and shortlists . Significantly , it challenges us to educate ourselves about the experiences of black people at work and beyond , to celebrate black success , and to have the vulnerability to admit that more needs to be done .
And while debates continue , especially in the US , about the extent to which BLM has been a positive force for change for other ethnic minorities , notably the wider Lantinx and Hispanic communities , it ' s been another important reminder that we need to approach ethnicity and race in a nuanced and considered way . Ethnic and racial discrimination will and does manifest itself in different ways for different groups and communities . We need to avoid at all costs a sense that " one size fits all ".
That ' s another reason why having those conversations , backed up by concrete plans for action , has also been important for Alexander Mann Solutions ’ revitalised approach to anti-racism in the light of BLM . Paul Modley reports that their minority employees have felt empowered by
the protests to speak up and be more candid about the change they want to see . “ Anti-racism is now part of the company ’ s vocabulary in a way it hasn ’ t been before ,” says Modley . As a result , the company is revising and finessing demographic data so that it can put in place the right plans to increase diversity at all levels of the business via a comprehensive set of talent acquisition and development actions . It ’ s also refreshing its training around conscious inclusion for everyone from senior leaders down , and developing a strategic plan to keep the progress made to the fore and sustainable .
Zurich ’ s Emma Francis is candid that the company ’ s initial D & I efforts were focused almost exclusively on gender . They have , though , been collecting data around ethnicity since 2015 , and had become increasingly aware that the company was under-represented in terms of black , Asian and other ethnic minority ( BAME ) employees , especially in multi-cultural locations such as London and Birmingham . The strategic decision to focus more on ethnicity was made back in 2019 , followed by signing up to Business in the Community ’ s Race at Work Charter . Still , BLM has been a seminal moment . As at Alexander Mann Solutions , under-represented employees started asking “ what ’ s your response ?”. It has also been a catalyst for all employees to get on board to support these under-represented colleagues .
For Francis , the key has been to engage with BAME colleagues to understand their real-life experiences and to make sure the response has been meaningful . Their UK CEO provided that crucial buy-in from the top by personally writing to all employees and chairing the Diversity Council . The executive team has asked BAME employees for their feedback , which Francis describes as “ some good ; some sobering ; all very powerful ”.
The company reported on its ethnicity pay gap for the first time in June this year . “ BLM has provided the context for those necessary conversations , which has helped to push forward the agenda ,” says Francis . “ It ’ s been a wake-up call , making ethnic diversity a more urgent priority for the business .”
Anti-racism is now part of the company ’ s vocabulary in a way it hasn ’ t been before
It ’ s the economy , stupid
Despite all of the undoubted progress made , it ’ s a sobering fact that the economic fallout from the pandemic still threatens wider D & I progress .
In October 2020 , the US ’ s National Women ’ s Law Centre reported that women have disproportionately suffered COVID-related job losses ; the picture was especially bleak for black and Latinx women . McKinsey estimates that , globally , women ’ s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than men ’ s jobs . And we know that all under-represented groups – often employed in the service sector – have been the hardest hit when it comes to job losses , lack of career progression and access to support services . Not everyone has been able to work from home , had a supportive employer or benefited from greater awareness of systemic racism at work . Suki Sandhu is unequivocal when he says : “ I think we will look back at this period and realise just how damaging it has been for some sections of our society .”
But , for Sandhu , D & I retrenchment should be the last things on our minds . Even in organisations that have been hit hard financially in 2020 , we need the kind of forward thinking that realises that “ improving diversity and inclusive thinking is part of the solution ”, continuing with the levels of investment needed to drive economic recovery . D & I teams shouldn ’ t be a “ nice to have ”, but a key part of company strategy , charged with educating and empowering senior teams to create clear , evidenced plans for real change . And we know that matters : what ’ s good for equality is also good for the economy and society as a whole .
Modley agrees . “ Right now , there ’ s understandably a lot of uncertainty around the economic situation and job security . But if we can weather the storm , there are real opportunities to drive further change .” And this doesn ’ t just mean change for home-based white-collar workers . Sandhu believes that 2020 has the potential – once and for all – to redefine the workplace and the future of work in ways that will level the playing field for everyone . Katie Jacobs calls for “ open and inclusive cultures , where honest conversations are welcomed ” and where people are given “ voice and choice ”.
Can we create , out of the extraordinary events of this year , a new social contract when it comes to how and where we work , with people and positive workplace cultures to the fore ?
Maybe . But we underestimate the forces of the status quo and vested interests at our peril . The authors of the latest McKinsey diversity report , Diversity Wins , are clear that we are at something of a D & I crossroads . For some companies , D & I risks becoming that unaffordable luxury , a diversion that could “ easily take a back seat ”, jeopardising the painstaking progress made in recent years , and the ability of companies to bounce back with the necessary resilience and innovation . The report also recognises that deprioritising D & I is a threat not only to the bottom line , but also to people ’ s lives , reinforcing again that diverse talent is disproportionately at risk during a downturn .
On the other hand , the report is bullish in its defence of the business case for diversity , with the dynamics around diversity and inclusion a “ critical differentiator for companies ”. It quotes evidence that diverse companies are “ likely to make better , bolder decisions – a critical capability in the crisis ”. It champions the need for existing management routines to be challenged to make the most of the diversity-boosting and talentenhancing potential of flexible working . It suggests that , with stakeholders more likely to interrogate a company ’ s purpose and values in a crisis , those companies that retain that early pandemic “ sense of solidarity ” by reaffirming their commitment to D & I are positioning themselves well to weather the storm .
Respect for individuality
Disruption is undoubtedly a misused and over-used word , but it would perhaps be excusable to apply it to the unprecedented events of 2020 . And , as with all disruption , it has the potential for both good and ill . The combined forces of COVID and BLM have conspired to create an environment where equality , diversity and inclusion are simultaneously front of mind and under threat . D & I teams know better than anyone that this year has provided a step-change in how we perceive our work relationships . An emphasis on physical safety has shone an even brighter light on the importance of psychological safety and mental wellbeing .
Confronting so openly such a range of personal circumstances and experiences has placed an even greater imperative on us to understand and respect individuality and difference , and to ensure that everyone feels engaged and included . And that crucial need for personalisation relates to all kinds of individuality and difference , including ( but not limited to ) gender , class , sexuality , disability , race and ethnicity – and how all of these intersect .
Perhaps the last word should go to Sandhu , who has lived the challenges and potential that this extraordinary year has provided , as much as anyone . For him , we need to hold companies and leaders to account to make sure we hold on to the progress made and push for lasting change : “ Nobody who really cares about building a better and fairer workplace in the wake of 2020 can afford to sit quietly on the side lines and still expect change to happen .” It ’ s up to all of us to rise the challenge .