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Flexible Work Opens the Door for Big Improvements in DE&I

two professional women grabbing coffee
Diane Gayeski
Published on

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is a crucial strategy for most organizations; 97% of respondents to a survey by Lever introduced new initiatives this past year. Concurrently, HR leaders are dealing with the enormous complexities of COVID-19 and the hybrid workplace questions that emerged. 

The Many Futures of Work highlights the impact of: 

  • structural racism
  • the loss of family‑sustaining jobs
  • the rise of gig work 
  • barriers to rewarding employment 
  • such as age, gender, disability, and immigration status. 

These factors along with COVID contributed to a collective shift in attitudes towards work, and we’re now in the great resignation with more than  4 million US workers quitting their jobs every month to pursue work that is less stressful and more meaningful. 

Sadly, those most negatively impacted by the pressures of the pandemic are women and people of color, and we risk losing decades of progress in developing a diverse leadership pipeline as they disproportionately are the ones leaving or “downshifting”

Here are 5 ways that leaders can harness the opportunities unleashed by a hybrid workplace to promote DEI. 

1. Leverage flexibility to create new opportunities

Flexibility in work location and schedule opens job opportunities to a wider pool of individuals with physical disabilities or health issues, whether temporary or chronic. They can now work from home and not be singled out, and a wide range of virtual collaboration tools increases accessibility, such as video captioning, text-to-speech apps, and modified displays and input devices. 

Courses and free resources are available to expand options for disabled individuals from institutes like Cornell University’s Yang Tan Institute on Employment and Disability.  

If employees rarely need to go into the office, you can hire people located anywhere in the world, not only helping to meet diversity goals, but also expanding new customer bases by having representatives who speak languages other than English and who are working in a variety of time zones. 

Offering high-level jobs with full benefits that require less than a 40-hour workweek, job sharing, and scheduling work hours that are opposite that of a partner/spouse can help retain employees with family responsibilities. 

They can progress in their career path and also retain elements of their personal life that are important to them — such as being home when kids return from school or being able to take an elderly relative to medical treatments. 

Watch out for: Working from home can make individuals who already are marginalized become even less visible and connected, and can easily set back the progress that employees were making in feeling more comfortable around co-workers who look or act differently. It can limit informal mentoring and networking that’s necessary for career progress. 

2. Spotlight employees who are under-represented

Employees want a sense of belonging, so give visibility to those who identify with a variety of backgrounds, gender expressions, and personal choices such as clothing related to religious or ethnic affiliation.

When you choose individuals to give presentations or select photographs for your website, think about what message is being sent about who makes up the company, what kind of appearance choices are considered appropriate, and who is promoted into leadership roles.  

  • Johnson & Johnson’s HR website features an account executive whose family includes 17 children - 6 of their own and 11 adopted kids with special needs from around the world  - thanks to the company’s supportive culture and benefits.  
  • McKinsey & Company profiles a mother who is working a 70% schedule at her executive-level job, a director who uses a wheelchair because of a long-term disability, and a manager whose child’s gender transition medical bills were covered by their benefits program.  
  • The US Environmental Protection Agency profiles their LGBTQ employees who occupy a variety of important roles.

Watch out for:  Don’t present false images or overly “stage” events just to include diversity.  People are offended by being asked to be included if they believe it’s just because of their identity and not because of their expertise.  Be aware that when you ask women, individuals of color, and LGBTQ employees to be on multiple planning groups, and presentations, you are adding to their already heavier burdens in the workplace, and this can compromise productivity in their jobs.

3. Clearly communicate goals and progress

Every company today touts its DEI efforts, but only about half of employees surveyed — especially those of color — actually believe that their leadership is serious about it.  Moreover, those who don’t trust the true intentions or ability of an organization to meet its DEI goals are much more likely to leave, and the hybrid workplace presents even greater challenges in developing a trusting relationship between managers and employees.

Executives must articulate a clear strategy behind DEI and point out what actual changes are being made in order to support the goals; this should be done in hybrid meetings that are easily accessible, retrievable, and understandable to a wide audience. 

Consider posting public data dashboards that are engaging and easy to understand.

Watch out for: Don’t characterize DEI efforts as “charity”, some numerical target to reach, or a legal mandate.  Avoid lecturing about the need to be more inclusive - most employees want to support DEI efforts, but they lack training or they aren’t given the necessary resources to recruit or retain diverse talent.

4. Create inclusion networks and interest groups

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), voluntary groups based on some shared interest or identity such as women in the workplace and LGBTQ pride groups, can gather critical insights, recommend solutions, and are an important aid in recruiting, mentoring and retention.  

Parents can share daycare resources, and ethnic identity ERGs can meet with job candidates and new recruits to help them make local connections such as faith-based services in their native languages.

Leaders can also create diversity advisory boards and “safe spaces” for employees to address their questions and concerns supported with both in-person and virtual collaboration options such as anonymous surveys and asynchronous discussion forums. 

Watch out for: Employees may feel discriminated against if they feel unwelcome to join a particular group or event, or if there is not a group that’s a good fit for them. Be clear about how employees can create new opportunities that meet their needs, and make sure that everyone is actually able to participate in online forums or meetings. 

5. Strengthen learning and development opportunities

Employees from traditionally under-represented and low-income backgrounds typically have access to fewer development opportunities such as unpaid internships or study abroad during college, and they currently may be juggling responsibilities that preclude joining civic groups or travelling to attend conferences. 

To advance equity in career advancement and to attract and retain employees, build a robust training curriculum, mentoring programs and job rotations.  For example, the Bloomberg News New Voices program coaches female executives in business and finance to appear as experts on their TV shows. E-learning courses and online conferences eliminate the need to travel or work outside typical business hours - often elements that pose hardships for those with disabilities or family responsibilities. 

Offer training for managers on DEI topics - such as avoiding micro-aggressions and tapping new recruiting pipelines including online social and professional networks. They play a critical role in creating a welcoming and productive culture, including ensuring that all team members have equal access to and training on new workplace technologies and that they are included in informal mentoring and social opportunities. 

Most of all, they need competencies in supervising remotely and  in displaying compassion during these challenging times when it’s easy to feel alienated.

Watch out for:  Don’t think that sending managers to training or creating a mentoring program for women and people of color checks the box for responding to DEI goals. Most problems related to equity and inclusion are not caused by a lack of information or skills, but because of complex systemic issues. 

Flexible work opens the door for improvements in DE&I efforts

Hybrid workplace options can create a greatly expanded vision of what it means to be “at work” and who gets access to career advancement opportunities.  

Allowing individuals to work from home can be a great solution to many barriers, but it’s equally important to re-think the office environment to make it attractive and accessible to a wide range of individuals who may have traditionally been excluded. It's about people, not places.

Reach out to us to learn how our tools empower people to choose how and where they work while providing organizations with the tools and insights needed to succeed.

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Find out if your workplace strategy is a hit or a miss.

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