Staying the course

Jun 02, 2020
Far from being ‘nice to haves’, diversity and inclusion remain vital during the COVID-19 crisis and could be even more important in its aftermath, writes Rachel Hussey.

Our collective experience during the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a considerable amount of discussion and analysis about how this experience will ultimately change the way we live – or want to live – when the crisis subsides. The pandemic, and our response to it, has called into question many aspects of life we took for granted.

The world of work has been turned on its head. The most obvious and immediate impact is that most of us are working from home (or, more accurately, at home during a crisis trying to work). The pandemic has caused us to examine the essence of the ‘workplace’ and we are trying to imagine how the future of work during, and after, COVID-19 might look.

As the pandemic begins to ease and we begin to return to our former workplaces for at least some of the time, flexibility will be more important than ever. Parents will have to manage childcare and work, possibly in the absence of schools and crèches. Traditional work practices may no longer be possible. We will need to have flexibility around work organisation, meeting times and general time planning, and allow people to control how they plan their day. This will mean not only continuing with a significant element of working from home, but also introducing genuinely agile working practices in the future. The former world of work is probably changed forever, and we cannot – and should not – seek simply to recreate it.

Now we have reached the end of the beginning, the focus on diversity and inclusion has begun to re-emerge with some interesting new perspectives. Many organisations are looking at cost-cutting measures and there is a risk that diversity initiatives might be regarded as non-essential. I believe that inclusion and diversity are as – if not more – important during this crisis as they were before and will continue to be as we emerge from the current crisis.

Organisations that had a strong focus on inclusion and diversity before the crisis were better equipped to deal with it when it happened. The starkest example of this is that organisations and firms that had agile working policies and practices in place, which mostly resulted from strategies around inclusion and diversity, were best placed to make the transition to working from home. Firms that resisted flexible working took longer to get set-up remotely and back to business. The last couple of months have demonstrated beyond doubt that it is possible to run a professional services firm in a dispersed way. Some partners and other leaders who may never have worked from home are now forced to do so and realise that people can be as (or even more) productive working remotely. The COVID-19 crisis has busted the myth that agile working does not work.

Of interest too are the leadership traits that have been important in this crisis. They include compassion, empathy, humility, and putting other people ahead of yourself. These traits tend to be associated with women, though they are of course found in many men too, and they are becoming more highly valued at this time. Inclusive leadership is particularly essential. Managing teams remotely involves being alive to team dynamics and being mindful of people on teams who might be isolated or feel excluded. Even on video conferencing calls, inclusive leaders will try to include each team member in the discussion. Making people feel included will help maintain productivity and motivation.

It has been established beyond doubt that one of the clear business benefits of diverse teams is increased innovation. Now more than ever, companies and firms need to innovate to respond to this crisis. It is, therefore, critical to focus on team composition to ensure that they have the right balance of experience, perspective, and cognitive diversity to nurture innovation and generate the best business results possible.

Specific organisations recently reiterated their commitment to diversity and inclusion publicly. At some stage, and let us hope that it will be sooner rather than later, we will emerge from this crisis and companies and firms will again be competing for the top performers. Companies and firms that stay the course and keep a sharp focus on diversity and inclusion during this crisis will be best placed to attract that talent. Once the crisis is over, companies and firms that do not stay the course will have some serious catching up to do.

Rachel Hussey is Chair of 30% Club Ireland and a Partner at Arthur Cox.