The diversity dilemma of COVID-19: keeping a focus on inclusion

As we begin another week in lockdown Chris Parke, CEO at Talking Talent, reflects on the importance of diversity and inclusion during good and bad times.

Chris Parke, CEO at Talking Talent, is urging businesses not to turn their backs on inclusivity during the pandemic.

How are you managing employee wellbeing while working remotely?

Communication and connection should be the number one focus. By keeping up constant conversations, leaders and managers can ensure that no individuals feel isolated at this disconnected time. And to help eradicate any feelings of disconnection that may arise, businesses should invest in innovative technology, so that a ‘lack of face-to-face communication’ becomes irrelevant. Just being able to interact with colleagues more visually can help create that feeling community and support.

It is quite easy to feel lost and without direction when working remotely, so leaders must help set clear deadlines, objectives and schedules – keeping business as normal as possible will prove extremely beneficial for employee wellbeing. It is also the responsibility of the employers to ensure that workers do not feel pressured to compensate for working from home. Boundaries must be set so that individuals do not feel the need to ‘prove’ their level of output – overworking and burnout can be detrimental to employee wellbeing and overall productivity.” 

How do you go about keeping different personality types motivated and productive when remote?

It is important to recognise that some introverts will thrive as remote workers. Still, some extroverts are highly collaborative and will need to have multiple digital touchpoints – e.g. direct messaging, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp. As well as having formal conference calls, these platforms allow colleagues to connect to form a virtual community, as well as embracing collective creativity.

Essentially, each employer should be aware of their staff’s preferences – do they like to be heavily managed or autonomous? While this can be used as a guide, some of this insight must be re-contracted, as it won’t necessarily apply to a remote working situation. Business leaders cannot afford to make assumptions. Maintaining the fantasy that an employee is going to cope simply because they like autonomy might not hold in a completely autonomous world.

How do you maintain company culture during prolonged periods of remote working?

It’s fundamental to create a sense of belonging and community, and a key way of doing is this is to create a culture where colleagues feel that they are part of something bigger. Inclusive leadership is at the centre point of this policy. And it is these leaders who must ensure a primary focus on inclusive remote workplace training, to help everyone understand how to maintain an inclusive workplace when they go remote.

In all organisations, there are ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups.’ Those who feel closer to the centre, and others who don’t feel they have a voice within the business. When taking that paradigm to a virtual world, it really exacerbates that divide. The people in the ‘in-group’ will be texting and calling each other, and keeping up constant communication. However, unless colleagues are mindful and purposeful about the extent of their communication, the people on the periphery may be forgotten – they are out of sight so, essentially, out of mind.

As a result, it won’t be long until they feel even less like they belong. It’s down to the voices of leadership to think about how they set up communications and meetings to facilitate people feeling like they are being included and have a voice too.

Is Inclusive Workplace Training still viable when remote?

In terms of remote working, the objectives and outcomes of Inclusive Workplace Training shouldn’t change at all. When considering Inclusive Workplace Training, several elements that need to be must be addressed for it to be effective. These include: ensuring training is commercially, and business-focused; the characteristics of inclusive cultures; and how to close the schism between ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’. Essentially, this training aims to move people from the passive role of understanding and accepting the benefits of inclusion, to taking action to make this a reality.

Technology can also be used to help implement virtual training and drive behavioural change – so resources, such as real-time online polling, can help keep people engaged and relevant. Sometimes virtual training for inclusion can be even more powerful because people can participate more anonymously, and discuss things in an utterly faceless way. By doing this, groups of people can access a deeper level of openness and honesty. This can trigger meaningful change, as people are more honest about the challenges they are facing. It is essential to recognise the need for strong expert facilitations throughout implementation, as doing it virtually is a lot harder.

Can a company’s culture survive going virtual?

It depends on how strong the company culture was initially. If the company doesn’t have a clear vision and mission with supporting values, then they will struggle even more now. Those that do should consider refreshing their values and talking through how they may drive the right behaviours in a now virtual world.

What tips can you share for maintaining a virtual diversity and inclusion network?

To keep employee networks engaged, communities within organisations must continue to ‘meet’ to maintain a sense of belonging. Support networks and employee forums can help individuals feel part of a community and engage with colleagues facing similar challenges. There’s no reason why those can’t be successfully run virtually – there just needs to be really strong facilitation, great content and innovative technology to help them do so.

How about implementing inclusive mental health and wellbeing support for a virtual workforce?

Leaders and managers must be more adept at spotting the signs of stress – their own and others – especially at this time of unrest. Mental health is and should be seen as just as important as physical health. Stress symptoms can be both physical and psychological. Communication is a vital way of preventing this. Stress management and mental health support begin with a connection. Again, feeling part of a broader community where support exists is vital  – especially if you are living on your own!

Will diverse candidates be negatively impacted in terms of recruitment when things return to ‘normal’?

Even before this concern, there is a real need right now to ensure that organisations aren’t laying off people who are most at risk – diverse groups, for example, who are further away from being in the ‘in-group’. More examples of vulnerable groups include: individuals out on maternity leave, or preparing to go on leave; people who already work part-time; older workers; and workers with any form of disability that makes it harder to work remotely. Organisations must be conscious of who they support, and no one should be dropped off the list.

Finally, do you have a piece of motivational advice for fellow D&I advocates?

All crises offer up opportunities. COVID-19 has impacted the whole globe. A collective shock on this scale means it is unlikely life will return to exactly the way it was. There is a massive opportunity for all of us to take advantage of this.

For example, communities are actively coming together to help the most vulnerable; we have seen the advantages of working remotely and virtually – and the reductions in pollution. We can use this global shockwave to drive positive change profoundly by maintaining positive behaviours, the best agile work patterns, and new perspectives on what is possible. Let’s make the best of them our new habits. Our new normal!
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