What Does Your Return-To-Office Strategy Have To Do With DEI?

Edward Beltran, Forbes Council Member, CEO of Fierce Conversations, Entrepreneur, Avid Cyclist.

The Covid-19 pandemic not only disrupted society as a whole but also had far reaching effects on businesses, workplaces and homes. The global pandemic brought illnesses, deaths and lost jobs, with dramatic consequences in healthcare, finance and retail industries. The pandemic also served to awaken societal issues, particularly diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues. Just prior to the pandemic, many businesses and organizations were embracing new DEI protocols that held great promise. In many cases, the pandemic emphasized the importance of these issues and underscored the need for positive changes.

As the world emerges from the pandemic, I think diversity, equity and inclusion must be considered more closely as part of business and organizational return-to-work strategies. Many factors are impacting the workforce’s return to the office, and business leaders must address those issues for in-person, remote and hybrid environments. Leaders need to be trained in this regard and given the tools to focus on results rather than face time.

The Statistics

In regard to return-to-work strategies, recent data from Future Forum (download required) shows that 81% of Black respondents and 79% of Hispanic/Latinx respondents prefer a hybrid blend or fully remote arrangement for the future. These statistics reveal almost a 20 point difference from white employees according to the Harvard Business Review (registration required). Their data also shows that in remote environments (juxtaposed to pre-Covid-19), the experiences of people of color increased greatly in particular to their sense of belonging (up 24%) and their perception of being treated with fairness (up 21%).

Returning To Work And DEI Initiatives

As businesses embrace return-to-work strategies, I’ve noticed that those with established DEI initiatives in their company culture are emerging stronger than those that struggled with the initiatives as merely another compliance task. Having mechanical strategies (designed to meet DEI compliance issues) means employees may suffer the consequences if recovery focuses on internal hiring. While the pandemic enhanced many technologies, the result may be greater displacement among underrepresented groups (Black people, Latinos and women), many of whom already suffered greater losses during the pandemics. The point is simply that for many businesses and organizations, the pandemic aggravated inequalities in the workplace, making the importance of DEI initiatives even greater.

The good news is that many leaders recognize these inequities and are making DEI initiatives a priority. One area of concern is proximity bias, which may lead to greater inequities between in-office employees and remote employees, and ultimately resulting in exacerbated inequities in regard to race and gender. The growing unease surrounds the potential for those who are physically in the office and face to face with decision makers and leaders to be seen more favorably and advance more quickly than their remote working counterparts, regardless of overall performance. In a new world of remote work policies, flexible work schedules and hybrid work schedules, the burning question for leaders will be whether results are more valuable than physical face time.

The rising philosophy of valuing results over face time has the potential to change company culture for the better. The culture becomes one of accountability, a place where feedback and interactions are welcomed in order to drive results, regardless of whether the team member is in person, remote or hybrid.

Unconscious bias, systemic bias and proximity bias have no place in driving a company toward the desired result. In my view, a range of cognitive diversity (including all the ways people think, experience and understand a situation) is key to successfully navigating return-to-work strategies and DEI initiatives. Diversity, equity and inclusion is imperative for business and organizational leaders who hope to succeed and thrive post-pandemic.

Diversity means creativity and innovation. Inclusion provides a level playing field on which everyone can be heard. Equity allows leaders to be more analytical, less partial and more value-based with feedback and performance evaluations.

Strategic Development

It is crucial for business leaders to remember the conversation is the relationship. While command and control positions may help still in a crisis, today’s leaders must also listen and support, show care and express interest, demonstrate appreciation and display empathy. These nuanced skills can allow leaders to meet the needs of employees, ensuring no one feels isolated or overwhelmed, and everyone feels an equal sense of belonging.

For DEI initiatives to succeed, business leaders should focus on implementing effective programs for employee mental health and well-being, providing equal access and opportunities for all. Programs can be customized for each employee to enhance DEI initiatives, whether the goal is health and wellness or tailoring remote work opportunities and flexible schedules, which may mean ensuring all employees have the access and training required.

Advancing connection and a sense of belonging mean nurturing community, putting away inequalities and cultivating diversity and values to implement initiatives in which equity and inclusion can thrive and flourish.

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