It’s been a challenging time, but it has shed a clear light on things that need to change. The COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to reject former routines and adopt new, socially distant ones. Protests that erupted worldwide following the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans inspired calls for reform and brought systemic racism, police brutality, and white privilege to the forefront of the American psyche. Maybe—just maybe—these events could produce lasting, positive change.
It’s difficult to predict what will happen at the national level, and unfortunately, there’s historical evidence that the impacts of events like these aren’t lasting. But I see the makings of lasting change in the American workplace. What if companies are as trusting and empathetic with their employees as they were during the pandemic? And what if leaders commit to long-term plans to bring more diversity and racial equity into their workforces? There’s work to be done in the workplace (and as a straight, married white male of privilege, I have to acknowledge the work I have to do, too). Using the learnings revealed from this year’s crises, businesses can affect real change. The question is, will they?
Trust between employers and their employees has always been crucial to a team’s morale, productivity, and collaboration. So far, this year has put that trust to the test. For instance, when COVID-induced remote work began, many employers invested in employee tracking software and other monitoring tools—this despite decades of research on employee management showing that close monitoring signals distrust to employees and encourages disloyalty. Instead, the opposite approach is more effective: Trust employees and they will honor that trust—and the fact that employees have been more productive during the pandemic is evidence.
Employers will have a hard time denying this flexibility in work hours and location post-pandemic. And many employees will likely demand it. Companies that have confidence in their people will see the benefits, like greater employee engagement, innovation, and productivity.
To work, that trust needs to go both ways. Amid the recent protests and calls or reform, many companies have pledged to make permanent changes. Some have promised upgrades to diversity and inclusion programs, others have started working on leadership pipelines and bringing more people of color into their board rooms. But in order for these initiatives to actually bring about lasting change—and encourage a workforce’s trust—companies must follow through on every purported strategy. Employees’ trust is on the line if a company’s efforts stop when the protests do.
This crisis has taken a toll on the minds and emotions of American workers, with an incurable virus in our midst, unemployment at an all-time high, protests occurring daily, and the global economy still wavering. At least one-third of U.S. employees reported experiencing symptoms of depression while living through COVID-19. Thankfully, more than half of employers have recognized these struggles and are refining their mental health benefits in the wake of the pandemic.
What’s more, employees themselves have become more connected. They all have similar concerns and are more understanding. I’ve noticed this in my teams. Now that our work and home lives are mixed, we’re learning more about each other and our lives, families, and homes. When a videoconference is interrupted by a coworker’s barking dog or crying baby, we laugh it off as just another side effect to our new normal. Employees are acting with more humanity—but when it comes time for offices to reopen, will this practice remain?
There are benefits to maintaining this practice of empathy post-pandemic. Empathy can improve employee retention, advocacy, and even lead to business success, too. But it has to come from the top: In order for empathy to spread throughout an entire organization, managers must take the lead. They must deliberately practice empathetic leadership and take the feelings and opinions of others into account before acting on something. This strengthens manager-employee relationships, fosters loyalty, and can even teach employees how to operate compassionately. Empathetic leadership styles are especially important amid workplace discussions around race and biases. If leaders aren’t invested in these efforts or don’t clearly emote their support, employees may be apathetic as well.
Sustained change requires continuous learning and reflection. This is true for individuals, companies, and even countries. Without it, we lose touch with what we’ve learned and why it’s important.
Interestingly, learning became a priority during COVID-19. Employees displayed an earnest interest in using this isolated experience as an opportunity for personal growth and development. This habit will be critical to maintain. As skills gaps are widening across industries, reskilling efforts need to happen now. Companies will have to continue providing learning opportunities that are easy, effective, and can be integrated into employees’ everyday workflows.
The protests have also encouraged learning. Many white people are pledging to educate themselves on systemic racism and oppression in America. In fact, since the protests began, Black American authors have topped the New York Times’ bestseller list, and the top 10 entries on the nonfiction list have been primarily titles that focus on race issues in the U.S. Business leaders have done the same, promising to learn more about how race relations and inequalities affect their workplace.
This is important since, for too many companies, racial biases and microaggressions still go unnoticed. And these conditions not only perpetuate systemic racism, but they can slow the growth of Black employees and affect their job performance. This learning cannot end with the protests. Organizations must continue using learning and development programs, like implicit bias training, to locate and address their racial blind spots. Of course, research shows that learning initiatives alone are not enough—they must be accompanied by structural changes, like the removal of any noninclusive organizational policies. But they are still an integral part of a company’s overall commitment to antiracism that the executive team should be held accountable for.
Before society returns to “normal,” ask yourself the following questions: What have I learned? What do I want to do differently? How can I make sure that I follow through on these changes? Right now, the American workplace has an opportunity to become more trustworthy, empathetic, and equitable. But it will require effort. Business leaders and employees must commit to change.
Jeff Miller is associate vice president of Learning and Organizational Effectiveness at Cornerstone.