Turn DEI Risk Into Opportunity During Work-at-Home

  • May 27, 2020

Over the last two months of COVID-19 uncertainty, my team and I have been hosting regular remote office hours and community calls to learn how people involved with diversity, equity, and inclusion are thinking about the crisis. We share coping strategies and work on building out a network of collegiality and support in anticipation of helping everyone emerge stronger once this crisis is over. What has come most sharply into focus during these calls is that uncertainty is now something we all have to get comfortable with to survive.

When Uncertainty is the New Normal in the Business World

With uncertainty now ever-present for all of us, no matter our position in an organization, I have been trying to keep two key questions in mind:

  1. Why is this happening for us (rather than to us)?
  2. What can go right (rather than what might go wrong)?

Reframing the downside of uncertainty—which is how most of us tend to engage with it—as an upside is a critical first step for getting to a place where we can be proactive about a situation in which it can be easy to feel overwhelmed or listless.

Uncertainty is everywhere around us, no matter who we are. When we think about uncertainty in business, we have long heard about it as a kind of holy grail for astronomical success for managers and entrepreneurs alike, when leveraged for strategic gain. But in the DEI space, uncertainty is something we tend to think about as something that is less of an opportunity and more of a risk. This is especially so for those of us who have felt compelled to cover or hide parts of ourselves in order to be able to succeed at work.

The DEI Benefits of Involuntary Transparency

Now that we are in this virtual world, many of us—whether we like or not—are revealing more of who we are. This is what builds empathy and trust between people, which in turn forms the bedrock of successful working relationships. Some of this transparency feels intrusive for those of us who are underrepresented, underestimated, or bear the burden of being the 'first' or 'only.' For those of us who have spent a lot of time presenting a good front, there is a deep-seated need to show up as perfectly as possible. But that's not possible when we're beaming into each other's houses and learning a lot more about colleagues than ever before. In short, no matter who we are or what our relationship to privilege is, this is an inspiring opportunity to trust each other with our truths. And that’s how change happens—through that collaboration math of 1+1=3 that helps us unleash the power of working together.

When we talk about what allyship looks like at this time, it means space holding and doing a ton of inviting and listening and displaying empathy—not just once, but constantly, for our colleagues who are experiencing this pandemic in a very different way. This new, virtual table around which we gather to work has to be set with empathy, and with tremendous appreciation for our true selves. This is especially important when you consider how we are being asked to trust one another enough to show parts of our private lives on Zoom calls, for example.

New DEI Habits Inspired by the Virtual Workplace

Once this is over, I don't think we can go back to how things were before. By now, we have seen too much, and many of us have moved past the ability or desire to go back. A lot of people are discovering how exhausting commutes are or gaining critical perspective on how in-person workplaces are breeding grounds for biased thinking based on appearance.

Here is just one example: A GNC acquaintance says that they are being misgendered so much less often now that things are virtual, and it feels so good. And it's not just that they have their pronouns on their Zoom handle: if people have fewer visual cues off of which to go, they will work with what they have, which makes it harder to mobilize bias, however, unconscious it might be. For those of us who have had to cover our whole lives, that results in a freedom to be who we are or to be seen as who we want to be seen as.

I hope that a greater acceptance of others is a vision for what comes out of this that we never let go of, and can really grow from on the mid- to long-term. But there are already some important takeaways we have learned:

  1. Adding pronouns everywhere—on Zoom, Slack, LinkedIn, and both internal and external software can help employees feel more seen, and give folks who want to be better allies the tools to do so.
  2. Accommodating parents and reducing gender inequity. There is mixed information about the results of all this time at home on the gender imbalance in housework and child-care, especially in heterosexual couples. According to Stanford, giving men equal access to—and permission to take—parental leave massively rebalances responsibilities in the home. A recent New York Times article also shows that we have a long way to go in actually closing that gap.
  3. Productivity and expectations need to be dramatically adjusted, especially when it comes to performance reviews. Everyone is having a difficult experience, so we need to reward competencies like empathy, flexibility, and a broader range of kinds of productivity. The best leaders are taking advantage of fluctuations in employees’ bandwidth, and changes in who may have an extra cycle here or there to contribute. For those of us who, like in my company, are used to the tag-team or relay race nature of distributed, digital workplaces, we know how important flexibility and empathy are to success.
  4. Everyone needs to be cut slack for stress, as everyone is experiencing different kinds of stress differently. While this is just baseline the case under normal circumstances, everyone is reacting to this differently—and even though we can literally see into one another’s homes, it’s impossible to know what is going on behind the scenes in its entirety. Some of us are showing up really well—I have no children, my loved ones are all healthy, and I’m used to running a company this way—but I am cognizant that I am in the minority.
  5. Proactively offer support where you can. We can’t always know whether someone on our team or on a Zoom call with us identifies with, or comes from, a demographic that is especially hard hit by the epidemic. Privilege has taken on an additional dimension through this pandemic, and those who have the bandwidth to do so can take on a new kind of ally role by asking their colleagues how to support them.

DEI Leadership Moving Forward

My prediction is that, through this crisis, we will take a quantum leap in areas of our corporate and individual learning that have at times been dismissed previously as not being relevant to or appropriate for the workplace. The best companies are calling out bias against the Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) communities, and mental health is getting more attention. Hearing leaders pushing these and other kinds of awareness and equity initiatives shows that this is a time to listen and learn differently. Yes, we're distracted, but we're also being shown what has always been true, and it's going to break through and accelerate certain conversations.

Over the past few years, we have come to understand, through data, that DEI competencies are a significant differentiator in an organization's ability to get, and stay, ahead of their competitors. I think that, by every measurement, we'll emerge from this crisis with a greater need for leadership to grow—or already have—DEI competencies, and I think we'll see the stakes rise, not fall.

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