Was 2020 a watershed year for D&I? The blue touch-paper is lit for 2021

Chris Parke, CEO at Talking Talent calls for leaders to do more to make our working lives more agile and flexible in 2021

As leaders turned their attention in 2020 to fighting off the new challenges presented by the pandemic, some of society’s fissures were exposed. Inequalities were widened, politics polarised, and those on the periphery felt even further away from the centre. Individuals with a lack of purpose or self-actualisation realised how lost they were. 

Those organisations who lacked a clear vision and purpose struggled with direction during the chaos. The reality of how much ‘dead time’ we lose due to long commutes, business trips and other travel needs became more apparent. And one thing became crystal clear – more must be done to make our working lives more agile and flexible, and more support must be offered by businesses to help us maintain a healthy relationship with work.

Let’s not forget about our leaders – what support are they afforded?

No-one has escaped the effects of the pandemic unscathed, but some felt the effects more than others. Leadership has come under intense pressure and at times scrutiny around the ethics of decisions made. The majority of leaders were faced with the task of ensuring businesses survived, that they made it through, let alone thrived. They also had to make sure all key stakeholder groups, not least employees, were considered, made safe and appropriately supported.

But the question is, who takes care of the leaders that are expected and tasked to take care of the rest of us? Right now, leaders undoubtedly need the ability to think strategically, at times pivoting their entire operating model to stay relevant. But it is those who combine strategy with the highest levels of emotional intelligence, empathy, an ability to listen, form diverse teams and who have made inclusion a primary business objective that have truly thrived. It takes a balanced, inclusive leader to be able to fully care for the people working alongside you, whilst also navigating extraordinary levels of uncertainty week to week.

Sat alongside business leaders, HR leadership teams were also at the epicentre of the crises. They too have had an extraordinary 12 months, with no rule book to turn to and the need to rapidly adapt and re-deploy workers, working patterns and resourcing models.

The concept of ‘applying your own oxygen mask first before assisting others’ failed to be relevant. With everyone looking up the ladder or to HR for support and assistance, those key individuals didn’t have the luxury of time to self-reflect, collect themselves and re-group with an, at times, relentless wave of urgent matters landing in the inbox. And of course, in the midst of the pandemic, there was also the need to show a considered response to Black Lives Matter – and rightly so.

Companies now need to consider how they will give leaders and those most impacted within their systems space and time to step back, decompress and re-group.

Worker wellbeing is an essential consideration for business success

Throughout this year, people started to realise how much of a profound impact wellbeing and mental health has on individuals in the workplace – not just in their personal lives. The working day has been stretched beyond traditional hours – people are waking up and commencing work almost immediately and logging off late. Others are desperately trying to fit work in and around their other identities as parents, carers, caring neighbours or “homeschoolers”. The boundaries between work and home have never been more distorted, which has had a huge impact on individuals’ resilience and mental health.

In the same way that we often realise how spent we are when we finally stop and take a holiday, individuals will recognise that they are running on fumes at the tail end of the crises. Leaders and HR professionals must start to think of wellbeing alongside inclusion as a key leadership capability. How to build sustainable and inclusive organisations, functions and teams. The priority should be to avoid a full-on systemic burnout slump as we continue to combat the virus and deal with the aftershocks. Looking after health and wellbeing is no longer just ‘a nice thing to do’ – it is essential.

An ethical approach to the digital world has never been so important

The pre-existing trend towards digital innovation has turned into a surge to fulfil our every need in a newly virtual world. However, it has now reached the stage where we are drowning in digital content. There needs to be more focus on ethical delivery of digital content and learning to avoid people feeling overwhelmed, addicted or abused.

Facing the challenge together helps solve the challenge together

Businesses and leaders who have created the most inclusive cultures, functions, and teams handle the crises best. Given the extreme nature of the challenges faced, from COVID-19 to Black Lives Matter and now back to Brexit, systems where you have a diversity of background, approach and thinking will allow for greater success in solving complex problems. Given many of the challenges this year, leaders’ ability to create psychologically safe working environments is crucial.

High-quality interventions are better than blanket approaches and box checks

2020 has also shown us that on some things you just can’t cut corners. Buying bowls of fruit and giving people discounted gym membership does not equate to employee wellbeing. Pushing your top 200 leaders through an online unconscious bias training programme will not change your working culture or provide them with inclusive leadership capabilities. Running employee engagement surveys will not tell you how inclusive your organisation is – especially if the report is placed at the bottom of the HR drawer.

The ‘follow me’ mentality of aping competitor programmes, forming employee resource groups and tasking them with solving the issues, and hiring D&I heads with no budget or authority is on the wane. This has been partly driven by the growing awareness of the commercial benefits of inclusion and growing unrest amongst key stakeholder groups, both externally and increasingly internally. Employees are starting to vote with their feet, and shareholders are starting to use their votes of no confidence in boards with a monoculture. It’s a powerful combination.

My strong desire is that rather in 2021 we will see far more meaningful programmes and interventions, such as;

•             Leadership frameworks and programmes with inclusive leadership embedded in them

•             A balanced approach to inclusion strategies that look beyond gender and considers all strands of diversity and the intersections between them

•             A desire to look at deeper systemic challenges and the root causes holding inclusion back, rather than dealing with the symptoms 

•             Wellbeing programmes for leaders and HR professionals, so that they can properly lead sustainable workplace practices and behaviours

•             The rise of holistic diagnostic wellbeing, which consider the multiple complex dimensions of wellbeing

•             Coaching-led approaches to help with all of the above

•             Leadership teams that value and encourage individuals to take time for reflection, personal growth and collective thinking to solve the most complex problems

•             A more thorough understanding of what ethical digital platforms look like.

Above all, with organisations still battling with what’s on now and struggling to look at what’s next, the main focus needs to be tackling the root cause of problems. If organisations stay focused on inclusion activities and wellbeing initiatives that fail to address core problems, they will only deal with the symptoms. Companies who have the courage to go deeper will be empowered to create a safer, healthier and more inclusive workplace. In turn, they will benefit from a happier, more engaged workforce and attract the best talent in all its different dimensions.

By Chris Parke, CEO of Talking Talent

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