Inclusion during Isolation

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may be the most disruptive external global event many of us have ever experienced. With widespread shutdown of workplaces, unprecedented shifts to remote working and concerns regarding a potential financial crisis, organizations must quickly change the way in which they operate to ensure business continuity and maintain an engaging employee experience.

As organizations adapt, they should keep diversity & inclusion (D&I) top of mind. Decisions should account for the needs of all employees, such as those who still need to go to a location to perform their work, those with caregiving responsibilities and those who are at-risk of losing their jobs.

The following explores the impact of COVID-19 on corporate D&I efforts and identifies ways in which organizations can continue to reap the benefits of an inclusive workplace.

HR should continue to drive D&I despite increased responsibilities

Responding to employees’ COVID-19 needs will likely take precedent over most D&I-related initiatives. Clear communication regarding shifts in priorities and identification of employees who will continue to own and drive D&I efforts (and include a D&I-lens in COVID-19 related decision-making) is essential. Equipping your HR team with additional support and resources can allow them to meet the immediate needs of employees without significant disruption to ongoing work.

All that being said, this – more than ever – brings to light the clear need for shifting the ownership of D&I onto individuals outside of HR, specifically business leaders and managers. During this period, HR at most organizations is responsible for establishing remote working guidelines. Organizations should train managers to communicate these guidelines and provide them with the flexibility to adjust guidelines to meet specific needs of their diverse workforce – for example, managers should help primary child care-givers balance their workload with the unprecedented burden to care for and educate their children as a result of school closures.

Organizations should leverage technology to drive D&I

With many organizations moving to conference calls, social media posts that show teams connecting through video during this period of isolation have taken the internet by storm. To the D&I practitioner, this is a unique opportunity to gain insight into how visibly diverse some teams really are. To a team leader, this is a good time to think twice about how you manage conference calls – ensure everyone has an opportunity to speak and encourage use of video to build trust and drive collaboration. However, team leaders should be considerate of those who may not want to use video conferencing for any reason.

For organizations using collaboration tools such as Slack, consider add-ons like Crescendo, which delivers tailored D&I micro-learning to employees at their own pace, providing a powerful substitute to traditional in-person D&I trainings.

Maximizing the employee experience during the COVID-19 era

The employee experience is defined as the intersection of an employee’s expectations, their environment and the events that shape their journey within an organization – all of which inform employees’ sense of #belonging. COVID-19 is an extreme example of such an event, and the manner in which organizations react is crucial to their ability to retain employees in the long run.

Employees will have limited job alternatives during a period of economic downturn; therefore, involuntary turnover can naturally diminish. This is a great opportunity to improve employee affinity to the organization. By creating the most positive experience possible for employees to counteract this period of uncertainty, distress and chaos, organizations can minimize turnover once the economy recovers. Some strategies to consider:

  1. Communicate your organization’s response to COVID-19 clearly, highlighting resources available to employees, remote working tips and guidelines, and critical information regarding their health & welfare benefits.
  2. Help employees manage their performance and wellness by setting clearly defined, realistic expectations for their role during this period, and providing paid sick leave and unlimited PTO, if possible.
  3. Support all employees in their efforts to create healthy and productive working-from-home environments. As a minimum, organizations should provide recommendations for maintaining both physical and mental wellness while working remotely. Extra points to organizations who are able to provide equipment such as monitors and ergonomic keyboards for use at home.
  4. If possible, be transparent regarding the long-term viability of people’s jobs – especially in the wake of potential economic downturn – in order to ease employee concerns.
  5. Give your employees a chance to shine. Incentivize innovation and find stretch opportunities for top performers to continue driving success while promoting career progression

Community building and networking

Considering many employees from minority backgrounds already struggle with forming strong internal networks, the shift away from an in-person workplace takes away the ease of forming connections naturally within an office. Organizations should think of ways to establish touchpoints with their employees (for example, virtual social events), being careful not to overwhelm employees with too many options.

Many organizations rely heavily on employee resource groups (ERGs) to drive community for their underrepresented populations. During this period, many of those who lead ERGs may find it more difficult to remain motivated due to conflicting priorities and potentially lower colleague engagement. Organizations should find ways to support ERGs in successfully shifting their events to be virtual, finding ways to maximize attendance and reward community-building efforts during this critical period.

Although individuals are isolated, events like these can make communities stronger, bringing the whole organization together regardless of background. Organizations should take advantage of this and get creative with their approach for community building.

When remote working is not an option

Some may lose their jobs because remote work is not an option. This can be especially detrimental for individuals from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds who will not be able to support themselves without work. From reskilling programs to robust severance packages, organizations can ensure their employees succeed post-turnover. But why should organizations invest in talent that is leaving their organization? According to Mercer’s 2020 Global Talent Trends Study report, 39% of organizations are planning to hire more “boomerang” talent (employees who return to work after working for another employer). It is thus especially important that organizations maintain a positive relationship with employees who leave. In an era of social responsibility, doing the right thing will help your organization in the long-term.

When technological proficiency is a barrier to remote working

Employees who are used to working in an office environment and who may be less technologically proficient may struggle to work remotely. Organizations should actively train their employees to better utilize the tools and technologies available to them. Consider creating a remote working FAQ, assigning employees a “working remote” mentor or designating a team-wide “working remote” support resource.

Responding to an economic downturn

If the economy continues to experience a downturn and organizations explore reductions in their workforce, employers should be careful with how they choose criteria for terminations. Criticality of role should be the main determinant for retention. Other measures that can suffer from bias – such as performance rating – should be given less weight.

While organizations should not make termination decisions based on demographic factors, they should be aware of the implications associated with reductions of their diverse populations, especially as they make already-small communities/networks even smaller. Organizations may need to adjust their go-forward D&I strategies to address these issues head-on, finding new ways to support minority populations that remain at the organization.

Note: Before resorting to reductions in workforce, organizations should also consider alternatives such as shifting employees to part-time schedules in order to reduce their pay or giving employees the option to go on temporary sabbatical.

Long-term implications on D&I

Workplaces around the world will forever be changed because of the global pandemic. While the establishment of remote working guidelines will be seen as burdensome, this will drive D&I in the long-run due to the flexibility afforded to underrepresented groups, such as primary caregivers (as mentioned above) and employees with disabilities who may struggle to commute to work.

In addition, as organizations become more comfortable with remote working, they will find that they have access to a wider, more diverse pool of talent that topples pre-existing boundaries. Currently, many organizations’ talent acquisition efforts are limited to candidates who live nearby or who are willing to relocate. Organizations can take advantage of the shift to remote working to evaluate their sources for talent and expand them to include more diverse candidate pools[i]. To ensure a shift in applicant pool demographics, postings for open roles should clearly indicate if a job can be conducted remotely and should reference an organization’s equal opportunity statement as well as its commitment to D&I.

How else will this global pandemic transform the corporate D&I landscape? Only time will tell.


Mohammad Abdul-Rahim
by Mohammad Abdul-Rahim

Talent Strategy & HR Transformation Consultant, Mercer