Since March, there have been endless predictions from futurists and Twitter pundits alike on how the coronavirus could shape the future of work, reconfiguring everything from office layouts to daily commutes. But leaders at Time’s Up—the initiative borne out of the #MeToo movement to combat workplace sexual harassment and assault—felt like something was noticeably absent from most of those projections.
“We saw a void,” says Time’s Up president and CEO Tina Tchen, “in paying attention to the issues of inclusion and equity in this crisis moment. And there is a temptation, I think, when you’re confronted with the kinds of fiscal crises that many businesses are facing right now, to disinvest in equity and inclusion, thinking that these are just ‘nice to do’ things when times are good.”
Those investments are arguably more essential in this moment. For years, advocates have made the business case for diversity: Companies that value diversity and inclusion outperform those that do not invest in diversity. And the coronavirus has already impacted women more financially, while people of color are being disproportionately affected both by the virus itself and its economic fallout.
Diversity advocates and organizations like Time’s Up worry that, faced with making hard decisions amid a recession, business leaders could reverse years of halting progress on building more inclusive workplaces. “Ironically, if you were a company that actually had been focusing on diversity and inclusion before the pandemic, you might have brought in a lot of new employees to meet your diversity goals,” Tchen says. “If you use what looks to be a neutral metric—like how long somebody has worked for [you]—in determining your furlough and layoff policies, you may actually inadvertently wind up undermining the diversity goals you had.”
That’s why Tchen and other leaders at Time’s Up set out to put together the Time’s Up Guide to Equity and Inclusion During Crisis, a practical manual for business leaders looking to navigate this period without compromising their work on diversity. To compile the guide, Time’s Up convened a group of diversity and inclusion leaders from 23 companies across the entertainment, healthcare, advertising, communications, and tech industries. “I often say that D&I leaders have long been the frontline or essential workers of their workplaces,” says Christena Pyle, the executive director of Time’s Up advertising. “What they were able to do is give us guidance and stories and experience from the frontline of their workplaces.”
The guide addresses both short-term issues—how companies can keep equity in mind as they contend with layoffs and restructuring, and the benefits of reevaluating or postponing performance reviews during a crisis—as well as the eventual challenges of reopening offices, as companies map out how to hold meetings and rearrange desks to abide by social distancing measures. “[When] you’ve got to move people six feet apart, pay attention to who’s off the C-suite floor,” Tchen says. “And pay attention to who gets left out of the meeting when you can only have 10 people in a meeting.”
Another piece of guidance is core to the Time’s Up mission: how companies can watch for and address issues like harassment and discrimination in an evolving workplace. “We do think that there is a high risk when people are brought back—and even when they’re working remotely—for sexual harassment and workplace harassment to be on the rise,” Tchen says. “Your common sense tells you that the stresses that people are under right now will lead to workers becoming more vulnerable to bad behaviors.”
The data bears that out: A study published last year found that even a one-point increase in the unemployment rate is typically accompanied by at least a five-point increase in the number of sexual harassment allegations reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Harassment can happen over a Zoom call,” Tchen says. “Harassment can especially happen with the anonymity of text messaging and emails.”
Tchen sees the guide as a working document, and Time’s Up is looking to source feedback from business leaders who use it. “We are all reimagining work in ways we have never done before—so we do not presume to know all of it,” Tchen says. “Our commitment is to keep iterating this and and sending the information out.” In fact, Tchen is actually optimistic that, between consumer pressure and the visibility of essential workers, the coronavirus pandemic will serve to strengthen the case for diversity.
“I actually think that the pandemic, ironically, is sort of showcasing that,” she says. “We now see how important essential workers are—and those essential workers are predominantly women and people of color. So if we want them to keep doing that work, we need to invest in them.”