Among the lessons of COVID-19 is the knowledge that human beings and our organizations can adapt more quickly and completely than we ever imagined. No one could have predicted how fast and how effectively office workers would adapt to remote work, or how nimbly business models would change. Health care, food service, education, entertainment, manufacturing and more evolved on the spot. COVID proved that the inability to adapt can be catastrophic. It also proved that we can change, if we want to. Going forward, how can C-level executives best ensure cultures of inclusion in the post-COVID workplace, and in turn, best attract and retain top talent?
REFRESHER COURSE: Inclusion by the Numbers
Thought leaders, executives, government entities and researchers have published, persuaded and pleaded the clear case for inclusion. Change has been slow despite the data-driven case for inclusion, but the numbers speak for themselves:
INCLUSION AND THE WAR FOR TALENT
In the ongoing competition for top talent, inclusive workplaces have a quantifiable advantage. July 2020 research from McKinsey found that 39% of all respondents say they have turned down or decided not to pursue a job because of a perceived lack of inclusion. Next-Gen talent is significantly more likely to choose an inclusive workplace or leave a workplace that is not inclusive.
Inclusive organizations achieve higher rates of collaboration, innovation and engagement. People perform better when they feel like part of the team. According to a 2019 report by Gartner’s Manasi Sakpal, “Through 2022, 75% of organizations with frontline decision-making teams reflecting a diverse and inclusive culture will exceed their financial targets.”
Research from decision-making platform Cloverpop finds that inclusive decision-making delivers results 60% above average. Diverse teams are simply smarter, making more fact-based decisions and driving people to resist entrenched ways of thinking.
“Culture is defined in any given organization by the worst behavior tolerated.”
John Amaechi, OBE
BETTER CUSTOMER INSIGHTS
Diverse, inclusive teams develop products and services that are more relevant to end-users. According to CMS Wire, a customer experience team that reflects your customer base is better positioned to empathize with those customers and meet their needs.
IMPROVED BUSINESS OUTCOMES
Diverse and inclusive companies are more likely to outperform others in their industries by revenue and market share, according to McKinsey. Global research by Bersin determined that inclusive companies were more likely to be change-ready, an essential quality for post-pandemic success.
PAVING A NEW ROAD TO INCLUSION
COVID fatigue has set in, which makes it easy to take the well-worn and familiar ways, to slip into old patterns as we come back to work. Since we’re already off-road, why not cut a new trail?
1. Create an Inclusive Culture
Vision and values statements, even company policies may express an organization’s best intentions for inclusion, but actual behaviors, rewards, recognition, and the unwritten rules which reinforce those stated values are what make inclusion a tangible asset. To ensure a culture of inclusion in the post-COVID workplace:
Seek Broad Input: Often, the most confident voices are heard, and the most widely shared views determine a course of action. Intentionally drawing input from each individual and seeking and amplifying unique or divergent views can generate better outcomes as well as greater interest in and acceptance of different takes.
Mix It Up: Hiring for fit does not have to mean hiring people who are alike. Seek talent in new places and prioritize fresh ideas and perspectives. Mix employees in teams, projects, and spaces. Gordon Allport’s psychological theory of intergroup contact demonstrates that casual interactions among people with equal status and common goals can reduce explicit and implicit prejudice. It’s harder to discriminate against people we know.
Play Fair: Actively managing a the post-COVID workplace can mitigate unfairness. A person’s remote or flexible work arrangement should not leave them out of sight and out of mind for learning opportunities, interesting projects, and stretch assignments.
Get good at conflict: Address non-inclusive behaviors directly and ensure that employees feel able to raise concerns without any fear of a direct or indirect penalty. Resolving conflict constructively can increase understanding and community.
Measure for Inclusion: In addition to engagement assessments, pulse surveys and exit interviews, organizations can audit internal outcomes to test for inclusion.
- Is compensation equitable?
- Do stretch assignments go equally to remote and on-site employees?
- Are promotion, mentoring and sponsorship opportunities distributed across an organization’s demographic profile?
- Are some cohorts leaving the organization disproportionately?
The answers to these questions can help pinpoint key areas for improvement.
2. Identify and Develop Inclusive Leaders
Inclusive leaders are widely understood to have several qualities in common. Inclusive leaders are often:
Purpose-driven: Inclusive leaders are fully committed to inclusion, hold themselves accountable and model inclusive behavior.
Self-aware: These leaders are cognizant of their own biases, work to prevent their bias from influencing decisions, and drive practices that prevent institutional biases from diminishing inclusion in their organizations.
Open: Inclusive leaders are curious and open, admit what they don’t know, accept feedback and learn from others, and build trust through humility and transparency.
How can organizations develop inclusion in the post-COVID workplace with their leadership talent? First, connect the organization’s mission and strategic imperatives to inclusion. Behavior change takes time, and developing inclusive leaders requires rigorous training, the opportunity to practice new skills, and accountability.
Developing inclusive leaders is only the beginning. According to researcher and author Rebekah Steele, “Everyone is responsible. We can’t put all the work on the shoulders of DEI specialists, the HR function, employee resource groups representing marginalized populations, or on senior leaders alone. We all have a role to play.”
3. Build Back with Inclusion
Organizations are remaking themselves right now—which presents a rich opportunity to ensure that systems, patterns, customs and rituals have inclusion at their core.
MAKE DATA-DRIVEN DECISIONS
Transparent, measurable and fair expectations can go a long way to removing bias and building trust. Nobel laureate Richard Thaler advocates using technology-based assessments to make hiring and promotion decisions. He told McKinsey interviewers, “We wouldn’t hire a race car driver by giving them an interview.” An independent third party can help ensure objectivity.
“Basically, Maslow was saying if you're starving to death, you're not going to be sitting around contemplating life—you’re going to be out searching for food. But what we now know is that Maslow may have missed the mark and that belonging, the human need to connect and be part of the group around us may be, in fact, our most critical need.”
Howard Ross, “The Business of Belonging,”
PAY ATTENTION TO TEAM COMPOSITION
Multi-disciplinary teams enable faster, more thorough decision-making; cognitive and demographic diversity protects the team from groupthink, fosters innovation and provides improved customer insights. Diverse, inclusive teams also create opportunities for connection and belonging.
EXPLORE RESTORATIVE CONFLICT RESOLUTION
Restorative practice is predicated on listening and finding a constructive way forward. It gets to the source of conflict without judgment, fosters shared understanding, and often concludes with better relationships and strengthened teams and communities.
BUILD INCLUSIVE STRUCTURES
Places where people naturally congregate or cross paths can lead to important, informal connections. Open stairwells, inviting break spaces and thoroughfares draw people together. People can connect digitally through drop-in audio platforms, virtual reality experiences, or by making time before or after video team meetings for informal conversation.
BRING INCLUSION INTO THE HYBRID MODEL
A hybrid workplace can still be inclusive. Leaders can invest in culture-building that creates belonging for all; offer location-agnostic opportunities, perks, benefits and recognition; build teams blended with remote and on-site members; and fully commit to transparency, communication, and empathy.
Technology and digital connectedness will play an important role in building back after the pandemic. That process will be uneven, as vast numbers of people in every geographic region lack the necessary access or digital skills to be part of the ongoing digital transformation.
COVID-19: IMPACT and OPPORTUNITY
In global surveys, executives consistently cite the recruitment and retention of top talent as a pressing concern. As the world recovers from the impact of COVID, startling numbers of people are leaving their jobs in what economists are calling the “Great Resignation.”
Inclusion may be a secret weapon to confront these trends. Research by PwC finds that 36% of CHROs see inclusive leadership as a top priority in dealing with heightened recruiting and retention challenges post-pandemic and mitigating the risk of inequity in remote and hybrid work environments.
Creating inclusion in the post-COVID workplace will enhance recruiting and retention, drive engagement and organizational performance, reinforce ESG principles, and generate satisfaction and connection among coworkers, perhaps even the broader community.
The benefits of inclusion are indisputable, and this immediate, post-pandemic rebuilding phase presents a promising opportunity to get inclusion right.