The diversity dilemma of COVID-19: changing the D&I agenda

D&I will not be set back by the coronavirus - instead, shift to respond to the times. Here Culture Amp's Aubrey Blanche explains how.

Aubrey Blanche, Director and Global Head of Equitable Design & Impact at Culture Amp, reveals how the company is supporting its employees and customers during the lockdown and how COVID-19 will affect the D&I agenda.

D&I work will not be set back as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but it will shift to respond to the times.

That is the view of Aubrey Blanche, Director and Global Head of Equitable Design & Impact at Culture Amp. She believes that companies which are still hiring can choose from a more balanced talent pool.

“They can be thoughtful about creating opportunities and intentionally seeking out job-seekers from under-represented groups as a way to begin to balance out the economic impact of these changes,” Blanche explains.

“Now, and until after this crisis has passed, employees are going to be choosy. They will be looking at how companies have responded to COVID-19. This brings an opportunity for companies to begin investing in their internal cultures and processes so that they become incredibly attractive places for under-represented people to work.  

“Folks who have come from marginalised backgrounds often show greater resilience and grit, which are precisely the types of qualities that you want to see in your leaders in crises like this. I think the smartest companies should be thinking differently. Which of our employees have travelled the longest distance to get where they are? What can we learn from them about the way that we need to grow? 

“Companies that can take advantage and see their skills and abilities as assets are going to be more resilient and come out on the other side of this crisis. But I think it takes leadership that understands that people who have persevered are the ones who are going to thrive in this environment because they develop their skills and abilities to push through when things are difficult.”

Leading by example

Culture Amp is leading by example in responding to the current lockdown in the way it supports its staff – known as ‘Campers’ – and customers. The company produces a software platform that makes it easy for companies to collect, understand and act on feedback from their employees to make their organisations better places in which to work. It also provides insights into employee experiences, engagement and performance, retention and how to handle change.

Blanche is impressed by how the team has banded together during the unforeseen crisis. “The leadership is working hard to be visible,” she reveals. “Whatever we can do to create a little bit of stability or a little bit of certainty is the best thing. 

Didier Elzinga, our CEO, is sending daily videos to the company, just a couple of minutes, on what he’s thinking. It’s been everything from ways to practice deep breathing and managing fatigue and anxiety to updates on what we’re doing and how we’re thinking about business continuity. He has also touched on how we are going to support learning and development and working from home if that’s not something that you’re used to. 

“A lot of it is learning to be both direct about what we can be certain about and also make it clear to employees that we’re going to be flexible to support their needs, which is where I try to take the lead.” 

All the initiatives Culture Amp has introduced aim to help Campers interact with each other to build a sense of community and belonging. 

They range from building team calendars and informal catch-ups to cookery classes.

Remote working

Blanche and a colleague, both experts in remote working, have held sessions internally on working from home. These included advice on setting up space, creating routines, tips for collaborating with teams and how to avoid work encroaching on personal time.   

“What is most important is that we have thought about how, when and why we are communicating to our employees,” she says. “We’re certainly a communicative culture anyway, but I think that what feels like over-communicating in this environment is really the right amount. 

“Internally, we are also using Culture Amp’s COVID-19 response pulse survey. It’s a great tool for understanding how employees are feeling, and we have made it available to any business, not just our customers so that every company can pivot its approach in these uncharted waters.”  

Results from the first survey showed that most of the Campers felt supported. However, there were issues around setting people up to work from home in the long-term.

Set a routine

As a veteran in working remotely – Blanche has previously been based in different cities and continents to teammates – she advises people to: “Be more intentional about communicating. Whether that’s expressing what time boundaries, project goals or your thoughts, write everything down and over-communicate when you’re working from different locations.

“Another important thing for me is that it’s easy to fall into the work forever trap when there’s no line between home and work. I’m trying to work only in particular spaces, so my brain says ‘this is a workspace’. I’ve turned my morning tea into a ritual, drinking it before I go to my computer and start to work. I’m finding that this is helpful because it gets me into that work mindset, and that’s something that anyone can do, however much space you have at home.”

Blanche also blocks out time for phone and video calls and makes sure to have some downtime by taking her dog for a walk. 

As a people and culture first company, Culture Amp is concerned for the mental wellbeing of its employees during the lockdown. It is collecting information on resilience and positive psychology to give to employees, notably to support team members who are living alone and far from their families. 

“Also, and importantly, while it’s a little bit more difficult to speak about, I’m starting to pull together resources, and will be training both individuals and our managers on managing grief and death,” explains Blanche. 

“It’s not something I love to dwell on, but we’re not through this yet, and this crisis will likely touch all of us, so I believe the best thing we can do is help people to be the best teammates they can if one of their colleagues is dealing with a loss. 

“We are looking at anticipatory grief which is I think what a lot of us are in now, as well as best practices. Educating our employees about what grief looks like, what you can potentially expect, how to equip your teammates to support you or communicate that you might need space or time.”

Changing the D&I agenda 

On how COVID-19 has affected the D&I agenda, she believes it has changed from raising the ceiling through actualisation and empowerment to “a trauma-informed response.”

Other factors have played a part, including political shifts in many countries, the rise of nationalism and white supremacy.  

“Our CEO said something that really resonated, which essentially was that a lot of the work done around equity and belonging focuses on the people who are left out,” Blanche recalls. 

“Who that is will change from context to context, but that’s really how we think about improving experiences. And in some cases, the methods and things that we’ve developed apply to everyone. We are all left out in some way, whether that’s through uncertainty, anxiety or fear. Our work is never irrelevant because there are always people that we can support to have a more equitable experience.  

“It’s not just about empowerment; it’s about making sure everyone is being respected, cared for and valued. I think the nature of the D&I work will shift to respond to the times that we’re in, but I don’t think that it sets us back.”

Professional tips

Blanche has some good advice for D&I professionals to help them through this difficult time. Number one is, take care of yourself so that you are in a better position to help others. 

She says: “I would encourage D&I leaders to find a ritual. Something that is nurturing for you; whether it’s five minutes of breathing in the morning, going for a walk, reading or spending time with family. Do that so that when the time comes, and you are needed, you can step up and support people.

“I think we all know that this is going to be an incredibly emotionally difficult time so whatever we can do to steel ourselves will pay dividends. And we’ll ultimately get through it together but remember that it’s okay and it’s admirable to support and take care of yourself in the same way that you take care of others.

“On the business side, use this as an opportunity to think about what compassion means. Ask leaders what they are doing to leave a legacy because it is in times like these that legacies are built.

“This is an incredible opportunity for chief diversity officers to coach and to guide their leaders. Leaders who will only be remembered for what they did for people and whether they acted with compassion when pushed to the limit. Right now, despite the will, I’m not sure a lot of business leaders know exactly what that means. 

“Diversity officers can be incredible advisers to the business about how to do something that both keeps the company sustainable but makes people resilient and helps our individuals get through at this time.”

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