2020’s toll on the workplace

A new report from our WIT Summit USA media partner the Center for Women and Business (CWB), reveals the impact of the pandemic and racial justice crises on workplaces

A majority of business leaders consider positive corporate culture important, but employees disagree that their employers are committed to that philosophy, according to a report from Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business (CWB). The report, Workplace Inclusion – Nurturing a Culture of Care and Belonging, highlights relevant research and interviews with thought leaders in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) to present action items for creating an inclusive workplace. It comes at a critical time during the concurrent health and racial justice crises that could deepen certain DE&I trends, particularly when it comes to Black women working in essential jobs outside the home. 

2020’s toll on the workplace: the breakdown

“The data shows that a significant majority of leaders firmly believe they are creating empowering environments where employees can be authentic and thrive, but employees often disagree,” CWB Executive Director Trish Foster says. “That disconnect is unsettling. Our report includes relevant data, scenarios and challenges, and also highlights positive actions for change.”

People of colour are disproportionately impacted by workplace culture. On average, 58% of Black employees perceive racism in their workplace and about 19% of Black professionals feel someone of their race or ethnicity would never achieve a top position at their company. 

Black and Hispanic women working outside the home have been hit hardest by the pandemic’s economic decline. The childcare impact is greatest for women of colour, women without a college degree and women with low incomes.

Among all mothers, only 9% report being promoted while working from home and only 13% have received pay increases. Meanwhile, more than a third of fathers say they have received promotions, and 26% have gotten a pay raise.

More than half of workers with disabilities report either losing their jobs, being laid off or furloughed, or believing they could lose their job in the next few months due to the pandemic. US employees’ risk of depressive, post-traumatic stress and general anxiety disorders increased by at least 40% in the first few months of the crisis. 

“Leaders must validate the pandemic’s emotional toll and provide tangible resources to support employees during the pandemic,” adds Foster. “Examples of programmes that support employee wellbeing include enhanced flexibility, comprehensive health insurance, employee assistance programs and childcare support.”

The report is based on a review of nearly 200 sources, including research, articles and books on organisational culture. A key component to gaining context and insight includes interviews with thought leaders, employees and executives engaged in DE&I. The report provides extensive recommendations to help address inclusion challenges.

“Those looking to create significant, lasting culture change must first step back and consider high-level strategies,” Foster says. “The starting point is an honest assessment, followed by a rigorous process.”

Basic steps to culture transformation:

1. Assess your current culture using a combination of approaches and feedback mechanisms.

2. Envision and describe your aspirational culture.

3. Provide education and training to employees about inclusive culture. 

4. Establish protocols for accountability and measurement of success. 

5. Communicate clearly and honestly about culture changes.

Foster says that while top leaders are critical to culture change, a cross-section of people throughout the organization is also imperative. “Transformation requires a committed group of people, even in small numbers. Leverage diverse strengths, giving people on the periphery the chance to contribute.”

Six signature traits of inclusive leaders:

1. Visible commitment to DE&I organisationally and personally, a willingness to challenge the status quo, and to hold others accountable.

2. Humility about their own capabilities, admitting mistakes and creating space for others to contribute.

3. Awareness of bias, including their own blind spots and systemic challenges.

4. Curiosity about others, demonstrating an open mindset, listening without judgment, and empathetically seeking understanding of others.

5. Cultural intelligence, demonstrating attentiveness to others’ cultures and adapting as needed.

6. Effective collaboration, empowering others, paying attention to diversity of thought and psychological safety, and focusing on team cohesion.

“Change is hard, and leaders driving organisational change must work actively to reassure employees during the transition,” Foster says. “Communication about the need for change and the ongoing process must be consistent, visible and authentic. Leaders also need to empower employees to impact culture, even in small ways – like calling out bias in the moment, or making time for check-ins at the start of meetings, or making it safe for people to demonstrate vulnerability. Small actions can cumulatively have a big impact.”

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