D&I in a time of pandemic – is it still relevant?

By Lynne Connolly, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Standard Life Aberdeen

: ‘without previous instance, never before known or experienced, unexampled’. That’s the word I’ve had front of mind for the scale and reach of the change we’ve all experienced over the last few weeks and its certainly true in my lifetime.

I began lockdown wondering how, in the face of such enormous pressure to make sure people were at home and safe, we could possibly continue to think about diversity and inclusion. But very quickly it become obvious that in a working environment where we are all physically dispersed, feeling connected and included is more important than ever. We’ve been learning together and developing shared experiences which will stand us in better stead as a multi‐generational and culturally diverse workforce in both the short and long term.

As we now move into a more restorative place, there are both opportunities and challenges. There is a lot of talk about a ‘new normal’ being a positive outcome, but this won’t happen without paying conscious attention to avoid falling back into our previous behaviours. I also hear much about COVID‐19 as a great ‘leveller’, but this isn’t the case for all of our colleagues and their communities which may be disproportionately impacted. It’s important to seek out both the positive learning and the shadow side of our experiences to truly understand how best we can move forward, consciously and sustainably. As practitioners, this starts with our own curiosity.

Opportunity 1: Inclusion becomes at the heart of our companies
For a while now, diversity and inclusion has predominately focussed on the diverse representation in our workforces at different levels. That remains really important but by dialling up the inclusion side of the D&I equation then we can look to what we all share – a desire to work in a company where we unconsciously trust, feel psychologically safe and are valued and included. In the long tail of post pandemic working, it becomes business critical to build productive teams who feel connected and engaged despite being distant in location. So, how do we embed this as a bedrock and build capability within teams for them to shape this up together?

Opportunity 2: Working with each other in new ways
Prior to COVID‐19 we were making incremental changes in our ways of working and until you’re confronted with a lack of choice then it’s easy to think that things aren’t possible. Of course the ways that we work look different across industries and teams, but the momentum created by more of us experiencing working flexibly, in location and hours, has circumvented years of reasons not to do. We’re also working differently with each other in our home environments, rebalancing roles in parenting and caring. Smart working as an initiative is relegated to the past. But in making it work we need to be open to how we are each feeling about office based working in the short to medium term context, and to each other’s preferences in how and where we work at our best in the longer term. So, how do we embed this as a philosophy rather than an initiative and make sure that it doesn’t unintentionally reinforce or lead to new workforce imbalances?

Opportunity 3: It’s ok to be me (the whole me)
COVID‐19 has brought a new window into our colleagues lives. We’re meeting family members and pets over Zoom, we’re bringing more clarity about how and when we can each work, we’re caring about colleagues in vulnerable or isolated circumstances and those who have caring and schooling responsibilities to juggle alongside work. And through technology, we are hearing ideas from those in our teams who perhaps previously felt talked over in a room. This requires openness from us all (to whatever degree we’re each comfortable) to both share and listen. Most conversations now start with the question ‘ how is everybody doing?’ and we’re more relaxed about taking the first ten minutes to check‐in. So how do we normalise what we all knew before, but wasn’t always visible – that everyone is balancing lives, responsibilities and interests outside of work?

Opportunity 4: Making sure that no one feels left behind

Diverse groups may be feeling the impact of COVID‐19 in different ways. I hear the fear from my Black and Asian colleagues or those who are shielding about the disproportionate impact of the virus. I hear the sadness in Ramadan and Eid being without the family and community interactions which are central to celebrations. And I anticipate the impact on our young people leaving school or university and coming into an employment market which has taken ten years to recover from the last recession. During the crisis, people have gravitated towards employee groups – both formal networks and informal groups. These have been a safe space to check in, articulate worries, build a sense of community and to drive stronger intersectional responses in companies. It’s important to understand different perspectives and to lay that alongside data to segment support going forward. The thing we mustn’t do is stop is asking questions about how it is and could be from a wider variety of perspectives.

Opportunity 5: Inclusive leadership is just leadership
Leading inclusively is no longer a facet on a leadership model, it’s just the way we have led through a crisis. Effective leaders are both commercial and inclusive, meaning the skills of curiosity and listening, openness to adapting, creating connection for their people and sharing their own experiences (including their challenges with tech!) come to the fore. We’ve seen great examples of this in the frequency and tone of communications which are more ‘human’ and focussed on the wellbeing of colleagues as well as on the commercial realities of keeping our companies strong through these times. So, how do we continue to lead in this way and adapt our people processes to acknowledge this shift?

And so it really does start with us if we, as inclusive leaders, are asking the right questions, capturing the learning and prompting the shaping of our new ways of working with our colleagues, then I hope that we can look back and say this was the catalyst which was needed for diversity and inclusion to truly underpin all that we do.

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