When we all got ready to pop the champagne corks on New Year’s Eve in 2019, we probably thought we had a pretty good handle on what the inclusion and diversity challenges that lay ahead of us might look like.
What happened over the next three months turned all of that on its head, and the inclusion and diversity (I&D) landscape has been radically altered – not in the sense of what needs to be achieved so much as how we do it.
Make no mistake: the pandemic has changed everything, diversifying society generally and the workplace specifically in ways that we could never have foreseen as we edged into 2020 that January.
Today’s business leaders now have to think completely differently if they are to create the inclusive and equal workplace communities that will be necessary to place them on the right side of cultural and human history.
So, what’s changed?
The obvious thing here is a community of employees that is now largely disconnected from the physical workplace.
Those who have responsibility for devising I&D strategies and initiatives now have to grapple with the problem of trying to deliver practical outcomes through a workday experience that is often virtual.
Just how do you ensure that someone who may have limited physical interaction with colleagues and managers feels valued, welcome and included? How do you ensure those colleagues and managers have access to the learning and tools and support that enable them to live the I&D principles and values of the organisation?
But it goes beyond the fact many of us now spend a good part of the week working from a bedroom or kitchen table at home.
Lockdown also brought political and racial conflict, sparking first protests – most notably around the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd – and then the important and necessary, but also difficult conversations that followed.
All of this, together with other instances of systemic injustice and health and financial inequality, combined to make the task of achieving unity even harder, and as a result we have seen the manifestation of very different I&D trends to those we may have previously expected.
How are the challenges and trends we face today different?
Naturally, some of the key I&D priorities that businesses face haven’t changed very much at all.
We still need to eliminate unconscious bias from recruitment processes; we still need to prioritise learning and development around I&D issues by bringing diversity specialists into the business environment; and we still need to ensure our organisations benefit from support structures that enable us to implement I&D strategy and initiatives successfully.
So, what does that mean for all of us? Aside from a quickly evolving remote workforce, I think the changes we now see in the I&D landscape will be driven by the weight we afford the different aspects of the work we have yet to do.
Here are the top 3 areas that I think have become noticeably more important in the last two-and a-bit years.
- Enabling diverse gender identity, gender expression and sexual identity
Increasingly over the last two years the issue of gender and sexuality politics has taken a position in the cultural foreground.
Globally, organisations have their work cut out to really meet the challenge of gender identity and expression, especially within a political ecosystem that seems hell-bent on a mission to exclude gender issues from the statute books.
On a parochial level – i.e., within the organisational environment – businesses have, among other things, approached this challenge through inclusive practices such as the introduction of gender-neutral washrooms, employee health benefits targeting transitioning individuals, and internal processes designed to educate around awareness and language.
However, it is only through the exponential impact that can be achieved through widespread adoption of these practices that real change can be achieved.
Further, those businesses that exert influence in the corridors of power need to step up and use their authority to endorse the delivery of better gender equality through protective legislation.
- Reflecting a diverse multigenerational workforce
One of the consequences of people living longer is the widening gap between retirement and financial security. Put simply, in order to live longer, people need to work longer.
What that means is that the working population has never been as diverse as it is right now, with five different generations on the payroll – the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945), the Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), Millennials, also known as Gen Y (1981-1996), and Gen Z (born since 1997).
Each of these generations has a unique approach and lived experience when it comes to professional life, speaking with different voices, offering different skills, and assuming different levels of engagement with inclusion, diversity and equity or equality.
This presents an interesting challenge for business leaders and HR professionals who now need to create and deliver a range of I&D initiatives and strategies that will have to be as diverse and representative as the workforce they are intended to serve.
- Avoiding the tokenism trap
Anyone working in the delivery of I&D strategy today knows that success has long since been about more than simply appointing one person of colour into an otherwise all-white workforce or recruiting one woman onto an otherwise male board of directors.
Tokenism is dangerous for all sorts of reasons, and often worse than making no concession to inclusion and diversity at all. At the very least it damages your employer brand; at worst, it can destroy your reputation completely.
In the last two years, particularly, the conversation has moved beyond ‘How do we make our organisation look different’, to ‘How do we make our organisation feel different’.
That, in practice, is far more difficult than old-fashioned thinking that busied itself with quotas and targets, because while inclusion can be measured, doing so is often hard and time-consuming work.
However, finding strategies that help to tackle these three key I&D issues whilst also delivering on those ‘business as usual’ activities, will be a central part of an inclusion strategy that is both successful and sustainable.
So, if you’re ready to take inclusion within your business to the next level, we’re here to help you do it. Please contact us – we’d love to work with you to make a difference where it really matters.