Will workplace diversity initiatives survive in a post-Covid era? WAC
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Google faced a backlash in May after eight current and former employees accused the tech group of paring back diversity and inclusion programmes in order to avoid criticism from conservatives. 

The employees alleged that, since 2018, the team delivering internal D&I training had been reduced in size and some vacancies on the team left unfilled, while some programmes had been cut back or dropped completely — a claim Google denied. Melonie Parker, chief diversity officer at the tech group, told NBC News at the time: “We’re really maturing our programmes to make sure we’re building our capability.”

Later that month, the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis triggered a wave of international Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice. This forced business leaders to look more closely at not only whether their efforts on diversity and inclusion were adequately supporting their staff, but also whether they have a positive impact on wider society.

The scramble to slash costs in response to Covid-19 has piqued concern that D&I could slip down, or even off, companies’ agendas. At the same time, some leaders are looking to tap the positive value of inclusivity, especially as the pandemic heralds a more fragmented workplace in which more staff work from home. 

The crisis has exposed how some companies view D&I as nice to have rather than a core value, says Pragya Agarwal, a diversity consultant and author of Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias. “That’s the whole problem with considering diversity and inclusivity as kind of a buzzword or a fluff concept, where people just talk about it as a box-ticking exercise.”

Companies with diverse leadership teams have been found to generate greater revenues from innovation — an attribute that will prove crucial for businesses to emerge from the crisis successfully. 

Employees are also more likely to go the extra mile — or give “discretionary effort” — if they trust their employer. As well as potentially damaging a company’s reputation, crimping workplace diversity programmes at the same time as furloughing workers risks eroding this trust and jeopardising extra effort from their remaining staff at such a valuable time.

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The early signs are not encouraging, however. According to a survey of global D&I leaders published in May by McKinsey, the consultancy, 27 per cent reported their organisations have put all or most diversity initiatives on hold because of the pandemic.

A diversity and inclusion expert at one North American financial institution, who declined to be named, says that while the business has not reduced its internal D&I budget, it has cut back its sponsorship of external events and programmes, many of which have been postponed as a result of the pandemic. “When we were looking at the return on investment, we were looking at, ‘what are we really going to get out of this relationship, given the situation we're in?’” the person says. 

Pragya Agarwal says some companies view D&I as a box-ticking exercise
Pragya Agarwal says some companies view D&I as a box-ticking exercise © Simon Songhurst

The company has instead turned its focus to increasing diversity across its supply chain, the person adds, and the inclusion aspect of D&I has been “elevated” across its workforce. “We’ve actually been working with our employee resource groups to understand what are the specific needs of those communities and how could we help them.”

Workplace winners

The reimagining of the workplace provides opportunities for certain groups and puts inclusivity centre stage. In numbers terms, women arguably have the most to gain as the workplace recalibrates and the stigma around flexible working recedes.

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Jennifer Brown, founder and chief executive at JBC, a US-based diversity and inclusion consultancy, says many companies recognise that D&I initiatives are “a mechanism for generating belonging in a very uncertain future”.

Not all successful D&I initiatives require a huge budget, she adds. Businesses can “marshal” their women or LGBT+ affinity groups for creative input. “It is a way of continuing to keep that drumbeat for the importance of this stuff going,” she says.

Maxine Williams, global chief diversity officer at Facebook, says Covid-19 has rendered inclusion more important and it is focusing on this and allyship to foster greater cohesion across its employee communities. “We’ve called for allyship in support of the rise in xenophobia, especially among our Asian Pacific Islander and black communities,” Ms Williams says.

Facebook’s employee resource groups are adjusting activities such as meetings and summits in response to the pandemic. “But we will not be reducing our commitment to D&I,” Ms Williams adds.

Maxine Williams says the pandemic has rendered inclusion more important © Jennifer Leahy

Debbie Klein, group chief marketing, corporate affairs and people officer at Sky, says switching to running events virtually actually enables the UK broadcaster to be more inclusive. “This is great because it allows even more people to access them and we’re no longer limited by seating space on site,” she says.

Sky says it is continuing to track diversity across its workforce every quarter. It is also conducting monthly surveys to monitor staff wellbeing and to assess whether the company needs to tailor its actions by gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or ability. In the wake of the George Floyd killing, it has also created an internal diversity action group and an independent external advisory group that will advise it on how the broadcaster can “deliver real and lasting change”.

Workers with disabilities stand to benefit greatly from remote working, JBC’s Ms Brown says. Removing the barriers of commuting and inadequate facilities at many workplaces, for example, could help tackle underemployment in this demographic. “There’s just so much access that was not possible before,” she says. 

However, the experience may not be as positive for those with invisible differences: for example, a consultant in the tech sector who declined to be named, reports seeing neurodiverse colleagues struggle with video conferencing.

Diversity may suffer in the short term as hiring slows and staff are laid off, but the longer-term outlook for recruitment could be more positive. Companies will be less likely to “appoint for fit”, says Ms Agarwal, as hiring by video means there will be less emphasis on first impressions and certain biases will be muted. 

Businesses have a “huge opportunity” to make D&I a priority, she adds. “What the pandemic’s done is highlighted some of the socio-economic inequalities and . . . it’s showcased that we need [diversity and inclusivity] more than ever.”

The pandemic will reveal whether organisations view D&I as an asset or a liability. Those in the former camp are likely to discover how powerful a diverse and supportive workforce can be as they emerge from this crisis. 

Pitfalls and predictions on D&I in the new world of work

Furloughing: Companies should have a D&I lens on decisions around furloughing and redundancies to ensure they are not inadvertently cutting disproportionately from under-represented groups. “Everybody’s watching the choices that companies are making right now.” — Jennifer Brown, JBC

Professional inequality: Younger workers or those from lower-income backgrounds may not have a suitable working environment, equipment or broadband at home. “Although working from home might be suitable for some, we need to have the opportunity of an office space, as this is better for many others.” — Michaela Greene, development and communications director, Roundhouse, a London arts venue

Sponsorships/partnerships: “It’s imperative that brands don’t drop their sponsorship deals, a key source of funding for organisations like Pride, as it really matters now more than ever — this is what it means to be an effective ally.” — Sara Chandran, founder of Fresh and Fearless, a UK diversity consultancy

Beware stereotypes: Remote working could mean staff rely more on stereotypes and build one-dimensional impressions of some colleagues. “We’re not really seeing the people in other contexts besides just those [virtual] meetings, so we don’t have an opportunity to get to know them.” — Pragya Agarwal, author of Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias

Community engagement: Employee resource groups tend to focus on business development, the workforce or community — the latter could have a more pronounced role post-pandemic. “Affinity groups will be mobilised around community engagement and philanthropy more significantly than before.” — D&I expert at a North American financial institution

Leadership: A new, more empathetic style of leadership will emerge from the crisis as managers realise they don’t have all the answers. “Leaders will emerge from some unexpected places.” — Jennifer Brown, JBC

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