Experts predicted that by 2025, remote work would rival rates of in-person office working across the country. The unforeseen twist is this evolution once slated over 5 years, occurred over 10 weeks.
In these weeks, some industries have arguably experienced more disruption than they have seen in the last decade. Amid that disruption, almost quietly, we’ve laid the groundwork for what could be some of the greatest advancements we have ever seen for diversity. But as people seek a return to “normal,” those advancements are already at risk.
The changed practices, cultural dynamics, and technological innovation pushed forward by the pandemic response have forced us to rewrite the playbook on work, and given leaders a unique chance to propel their diversity efforts further than they have ever seen. No matter under what pressured circumstances it occurs, forced innovation is innovation nonetheless.
But some leaders have missed their cue and already cut diversity and inclusion budgets, laid off diversity-focused staff, and reduced support for underrepresented communities in their hour of greatest need. It’s becoming widely recognized that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on the black and LGBTQIA+ communities—and a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) could lead to more fairness and equity.
But overall, if you look for behavioral progress, some of the positive shifts we’ve seen for diversity are unprecedented: Look at the new visibility we’re suddenly receiving into each other’s homes during Zoom and other virtual meetings. Notice new discussions we’re having around personal needs and challenges, and the expanded mental space we’re giving our team members (and leaders) to cope.
Look at the new workplace policies that have shifted to adapt to human needs. Employers have introduced new therapy resources, and reconfigured sick leave policies and telehealth benefits, taking into account how each of us differs as people, parents, and caretakers.
The pandemic has created more disruption for diversity in work culture than we’ve seen in a decade, but if we do not seize upon this opportunity with decisiveness, it may vanish entirely. Pinpoint emerging areas for progress and changing behaviors, which can equate to lasting change.
The following are some behaviors and practices to preserve as we take advantage of this disruptive time.
Progress in workplace accessibility
By changing the way we work to remote, we have brought a new level of accessibility to our workdays that seemed nearly impossible months ago. A new setting has provided an equalizing experience and lifted significant barriers for many communities—from working parents to people with disabilities to older workers. Individuals with disabilities can now access work virtually, when they previously were hindered by an employer’s lack of accommodations. Job applicants have witnessed newfound geographic accessibility, as many employers have lifted requirements for on-site work.
Leaders now question whether these changes will just be temporary. But it’s critical that these new policies stay in place—leveling the playing field for many—instead of reverting back to old, rigid rules.
To solidify your diversity efforts, strive to bring along all of these equity-enhancing actions into your next chapter.
Greater awareness of intersectionality
In the past two months we have brought our personal lives to work, and work to our personal lives. By bringing these worlds together, we’ve gained a new understanding and appreciation for the fact that we aren’t just one thing. More than before, intersectionality matters.
In recent years there has been wide discussion of intersectionality, defined as overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. But during these unprecedented times, intersectionality means something personal. Now, it means we all have to account for the different aspects of other people’s lives, simply because we can, quite literally, see each other better.
You can now see your LGBTQIA+ colleague is also a working parent balancing teaching her daughter at home. While on a call, you now are aware your Latinx colleague has a preexisting medical condition and is also caring for an elderly parent.
With this new level of empathy and awareness, leaders should take the opportunity to talk about their intersectionality, as well as create space for everyone in their organization to do the same.
Development of more inclusive practices
While so many parts of daily life are going through disruption, leaders have the chance to push the change they want to see. One of those opportunities is to develop more inclusive hiring and employment methods inside the company.
For instance, genetic testing company 23andMe slowed down its hiring amid COVID-19 and redirected attention to explore how it could develop more equitable and inclusive hiring tactics while it had the space. It assessed its existing hiring efforts and pinpointed specific ways to reduce bias in job descriptions, institute diverse interview panels, and standardize its selection criteria.
Leaders can use this opportunity to walk through their hiring and employee experience with their team and discuss immediate ways to make their practices more inclusive.
Companies, many whom are going through significant staffing changes, are presented with a unique opportunity to shift their diversity representations.
In what would have otherwise taken years, organizations can now boost their representation in months by looking at rehiring and reductions through the lens of diversity. Many organizations have decided on recent layoffs based on tenure or seniority. This approach unintentionally creates significant inequities by cutting employees with diverse perspectives, just because they are new hires or still awaiting promotions. To ensure diversity among their company, leaders must frame diversity as a rising priority in their decision-making with their ranks.
From whichever angle you’re looking at it, the crisis has delivered a crossroads to businesses. We can either take many steps back or measurable leaps ahead. Leaders must decide to either feel stagnant and afraid—or notice progress as a result of great change and double down on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.
Arthur Woods is the cofounder of Mathison, a diversity recruiting platform, and previously founded Imperative and Out in Tech. He is an entrepreneur and LGBTQIA+ leader working at the intersection of inclusion and technology.