By Stuart R. Levine

Published In, Forbes

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on society and the workplace are coinciding with a renewed quest for racial equity. There are two related dynamics at play for leaders to consider: One is how employees return safely to the workplace while Covid-19 is still active. The choices leaders make today must provide for the employees’ basic needs for safety and a level of future security. The other dynamic is a call for a rededication to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Focusing on both employee safety as well building a diverse and inclusive culture based upon trust, will ensure the organizational resilience needed to advance your mission and strategies going forward. 

Both employers and employees know that the workplace will change substantially and for the longer term due to the pandemic.  University of Chicago surveyed employers of office staff and found that post-pandemic, they expect at least 27% of full-time employees will work from home for at least a few days a week.  Employees seem to want this as well. A recent Korn Ferry Institute survey found that 20% of employees did not want to return to the office at all and a significant 50% had health concerns with returning. 

Most employees report that their companies did a good job in moving people to off-site work in response to the pandemic. Companies that did this well, cultivated employee engagement, a McKinsey survey found. Employees who felt their organizations handled offsite relocation well versus employees who felt their organization did poorly, were four times more likely to be engaged and six times more likely to feel a positive state of well-being as compared to those who felt the transition was not well managed.

Decisions around a return to the workplace will impact the maintenance of a healthy culture based on trust and engendering engagement. Assuring the physical safety, health, and security of employees goes without saying. However, leaders face myriad decisions around who returns to the office, how they return and how often they are physically at work. A new office-scape with reduced workplace density, social distancing requirements, and architectural workarounds will impact both behaviors and the culture. Leadership decisions engender trust when employee input is deeply incorporated into the policy-making processes. Employee concerns, ideas, and insights should be part of senior-level strategic conversations. Employees understand the value of their participation in decision-making which directly affects them, is part of a transparent process and includes their thinking combined with science and data that puts health and safety first.  

Leaderships’ response to the outpouring of concern for racial equity is another opportunity to advance a healthy culture and the organizational mission.  Diversity, equity, and inclusion have been stated values within most companies for years. But unfortunately, there is a gap between what is written on walls and websites and the reality of the situation. Leaders know their companies have been falling short. A recent PwC survey reported that only 16% of corporate directors thought their companies scored “excellent” for recruiting a diverse workforce. Even fewer, 15%, felt their companies were excellent in developing diverse executive talent. 83% believed that their companies should be doing more to promote racial and gender diversity. 

Leaders’ commitment to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion are good for business and drive resilience and results. “Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not”, wrote Columbia Business School Professor, Katherine Phillips as she described the research on this topic for Scientific American in “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter”. Diverse teams come to the table better prepared for decision-making and accomplishing the task at hand. A sense of complacency and sameness in thinking is more likely in homogeneous teams than in diverse teams. Differences among team members, force each person to anticipate that there will be alternative and unexpected viewpoints to consider and evaluate. 

Reaching consensus takes more effort. People must work harder to communicate their own thinking, and they need to broaden their own views to consider unexpected perspectives of others. This takes more work and preparation, but it’s worth it because it drives results. Harvard Business Review reported that diverse companies enjoyed better overall financial performance with EBIT margins nearly 10% higher for those with diverse management teams than for those with below-average management diversity. HBR also affirmed that when at least one team member shares a client’s ethnicity the team is more than twice as likely to understand that client’s needs, than teams where no member shares that trait.

Netflix provides a relevant case study on the multiple benefits to attracting, developing a diverse workforce, which creates and maintains a welcoming and inclusive culture that encourages engagement and retention.  Although there were bumps in the road, Netflix made a point over the last several years to have a diverse team of buyers, directors, and other creatives and businesspeople. The New York Times recently reported how Black buyers years ago understood there was an opportunity in more Black content. They saw that it was “efficient”, meaning it drives above average viewership for every dollar spent. Inclusion became a stated value for offerings with a goal of everyone being able to see themselves on the screen. Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, however, knew that the company needed to do a better job making the internal culture match its content. Since 2018, the company has hired a more diverse group of high-level executives, and entered into high-profile deals and contracts for quality diverse content. Netflix’s success is reflected in its stock price and profit. Moreover, its diverse content is now the envy of Hollywood.

In these novel times, a company’s resilience and even survival depends upon trust, creativity and innovation and new behaviors. Leadership will inspire trust through inclusion of staff in the calculus of return to the workplace and understanding the power of diverse teams to encourage the nonlinear and fresh thinking that this new work environment will require. Creating a foundation of engagement, equity, respect, and inclusion will encourage new ways of working and cooperating together. A future with a considerably different office-scape and changing operating models, calls for leaders to establish and maintain inclusive cultures that will endure and benefit the organization going forward.