Diversity and Inclusion in a post-pandemic world

Kai Kirkkopelto

Dubbed ‘freedom day’ in England, last Monday (19th July 2021) saw most Covid-19 restrictions lifted. Although face masks are still encouraged and self-isolation when needed, remains! And even though lockdown rules vary worldwide, this marks a significant step towards ‘business as usual’. As we take this tentative step towards ‘normal’, we must use this opportunity to reflect, and consider how we want to shape our future.

For many organisations, Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) will be at the top of the agenda as we return to the office. Especially due to the varying impact the pandemic had on those from diverse backgrounds. On the one hand, the increase in adoption of flexible and remote work as a result of the pandemic has enabled many people to return to work. For example, parents with young children – who can now do the school run while working from home. On the other hand, the increased unemployment due to the pandemic disproportionately hit the minority groups in the workplace. For example, the unemployment rate disabled people was 8.4% in October – December 2020 (compared to 4.6% for those who are not disabled).

This results in a D&I landscape that is more unbalanced than ever before. So now’s the time to prioritise D&I initiatives, and ensure we move ahead into a post-pandemic world with diverse and inclusive workplaces. 

What is diversity and inclusion?

D&I isn’t a new topic. In fact, many organisations began looking at diversity and inclusion almost 16 years ago, following the ‘Shaping a Fairer Future’ paper from Baroness Prosser. But, if you’ve not explored D&I in the past, it’s important that we define exactly what diversity and inclusion means. Although grouped together, they are separate entities and should be defined as such. According to the Global Diversity Practice:

Diversity is about empowering people by respecting and appreciating what makes them different. For example, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, and national origin.

Whereas inclusion is a practice which accepts and welcomes individuals who have different backgrounds. Whilst ensuring all employees are treated equally.

In simple terms, diversity is the mix and inclusion is getting the mix to work well together.

Yet, not everybody agrees on what D&I means in practice. According to a report from Deloitte, people from different generations perceive D&I differently. Millennials view it as combining different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. Which when combined lead to increased innovation at work. Whereas Gen Xers and Boomers focus on equal and fair representation at work, regardless of demographics.

So why does D&I matter?

Whichever way you interpret D&I, it’s importance in the workplace remains the same. In the modern world it’s unacceptable to have workforces that lack diversity and inclusion. It is unacceptable that employees from a lower socio-economic background take 25% longer to progress through a company (despite no difference in skillset). It is not right that there are only 6 female CEOs in the UK FTSE 100 (compared to 94 men). And it isn’t fair that unemployment impacts minority groups more than any other. In today’s age we should have organisations that represent the world around us, and to ensure that – we must proactively create diverse workforces.

Plus, D&I initiatives will also help your business bottom line. Organisation’s that prioritise diversity and inclusion are more likely to attract and keep new talent. This is especially notable in younger generations, as 83% of millennials want to work for a company that aligns with their personal values. Plus, a focus on D&I can also bring with it innovation, stronger employee engagement and productivity – positively boosting the bottom line.

How did Covid-19 impact diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

The onset of the pandemic meant organisations had to stop, pivot or completely change their ways of working. And this caused a shift in business priorities – and many had to focus on staying afloat rather than anything else.

This change distracted organisations from D&I initiatives. And shed a light on wider inequalities in our workforces – that go beyond the traditional demographic realms. Notably, the pandemic showed the disparity in home working environments. Graduates or younger professionals spent their time working from small desks in cramped bedrooms. Whereas their older counterparts worked from comfortable home offices. And although there is little we can do to overcome this, it is important to remember this when moving away from Covid restrictions.

What’s more, the pandemic exacerbated the gender divide in the workplace. As schools closed, parents and children embarked on a journey of home-schooling. And although there was a sense of unity amongst parents – this challenge disproportionately hit mothers. In fact, 23% of working mums contemplated quitting work due to child-care struggles during the pandemic (compared to just 13% of fathers).

But working from home isn’t everybody’s dream come true

Many reports will tell you that remote working is here to stay. And to some extent that is true. But according to a survey by YouGov, only 18% of workers want to work from home permanently after the pandemic is over. And a staggering 39% never want to work from home again. This is a huge portion of the workforce, and you must consider them in your ‘return to the office’ strategy. When looking to the future, it’s important to acknowledge flexibility goes two ways and your strategy should promote an inclusive workplace for all.

The role of HR in diversity and inclusion

Everybody in your organisation is responsible for diversity and inclusion. Your leadership team must prioritise it. Managers should overcome unconscious biases when hiring new staff. And your people must embrace the myriad of cultures in your organisation. But the sad truth is: shared responsibility usually ends in nobody taking responsibility. So somebody needs to take ownership of your organisation’s D&I initiatives. And more often than not this falls to HR. Josh Bersin, leading industry analyst and researcher, agrees, stating that D&I must be a business strategy, with the needle driven by HR. And 65% of senior business execs agree, saying it’s HR’s responsibility to implement D&I programmes.

So what can HR do to boost diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

Tackle common challenges head-on

There are many D&I issues which organisations can tackle head-on. Take the gender pay gap for example. In 2020 the UK saw a gender pay gap of 15.5% – and although this is falling year-on-year, it’s still much too high. HR can tackle this problem by comparing salaries and compensation packages of female and male employees. If they identify a problem, they should encourage senior leaders to do something about it. This enables your organisation to confidently say you pay fairly, regardless of gender – without disclosing anybody’s salary.

Utilising mentoring to bridge the gap

Mentoring brings together people from a range of backgrounds and drives interactions between them. Which in turn helps organisations bridge the gap between employees, and create a more inclusive environment for all. Many organisations use reverse mentoring to overcome issues associated with inclusion. For example, the tech industry overcomes age discrimination by implementing reverse mentoring. With younger employees pairing up with older colleagues to develop their digital skills.

Rethink your hiring & retention processes

Most D&I initiatives start with removing biases from the hiring process. And there are many ways you can do this, from acquiring technology to aid you, to scrubbing names and addresses from CVs. Plus, it may be worth investing in some unconscious bias training for hiring managers, ensuring all candidates are getting a fair chance.

But many companies only focus on diversity and inclusion in the hiring process. This is the wrong approach. You should also evaluate your D&I practices in the day-to-day operations of your company. To ensure a truly diverse and inclusive workplace, retention must be at the forefront of your D&I strategy. This might include educating leaders, forming an inclusion council or celebrating differences in your people.

2021 is an opportunity for a fresh start

The pandemic is far from over, and the side effects of the pandemic will be with society for some time. But 2021 will be a year of change, learning to live with Covid-19, and ultimately it’s a great opportunity for a fresh start. So, if your organisation hasn’t prioritised diversity and inclusion yet – now is the perfect time to do it.

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