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Achieving Inclusion in the “New Normal”: A Dialogue

In late May 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic and as employees transitioned to working at home, we at EPS shared our perspectives regarding how to navigate the “new normal,” including the continued importance of staying focused on how to strategically incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts when considering next steps during these unprecedented times.[1]

After almost 18 months of working from home arrangements for many employees, employers are now considering having their employees return to the office, continuing to work remotely, or some combination thereof. As they grapple with what these working options will look like, it remains critical that DEI considerations be part of the decision-making process. Indeed, this time of transition provides an opportunity for leaders to reflect on the workplace culture, using the lessons learned from the past year, and to make any needed changes.  

EPS Director of Training and DEI Initiatives Jessica Caspe and certified DEI Professional Tonya Gentry recently “met” to discuss the concerns employees may have as offices begin to open and what employers should be considering, from a DEI perspective, as some employees transition back to the office or continue with some other working arrangement.

The following is a summary of their conversation, likely one of many as these issues remain on the forefront for organizations.

What concerns immediately come to mind when you think about employees returning to the office?

Tonya: That is a complex question for a number of reasons. An employer may not understand all the challenges employees are facing or have faced, but acknowledging those challenges is a step in the right direction. We have all existed in this pandemic for over a year, but our experiences have not been the same. Hence, employees will have varying opinions and perspectives about returning to an office environment. Even my thoughts expressed here today are based upon ongoing conversations with other fellow colleagues in the DEI world, and the commentary from each person during those chats are usually different.   

Employers have a responsibility to ensure the organization functions at a high level, and that it does so in a safe manner. The challenge is determining how to provide an environment for a diverse employee population which not only enables them to perform at their professional best, but also recognizes “safety” might look or feel different to each individual.

There are so many examples that come to mind. For instance, as different news outlets have frequently reported throughout the pandemic, certain segments of our population are dying at higher rates than their counterparts from COVID-19, which can present unique challenges for those respective groups. Moreover, many working mothers are struggling with how they will obtain adequate and affordable childcare for their children when returning to an office (especially considering various statistical studies have shown many families have experienced devastating financial losses as a result of the pandemic, especially female family members).[2] Consider the employee who lives alone, who has had almost two years of isolation, which may have affected their mental health because of increased loneliness. What about any employee who has experienced loss, fear, and/or uncertainty in some form or fashion, yet the effects are manifested in different ways—mentally, physically, socially, or even all the above? These are limited examples, but demonstrate the complexities involved with ensuring the health and safety of employees. Employers must ask themselves how their organizations will remain productive in the midst of so many variables.

Jessica: It is a difficult question as there are so many factors to consider, depending on the employee’s individual circumstances and how the pandemic has impacted them. But the goal, regardless of whether employees continue to work at home, return to the office, or some combination of the two, is the same—that employees feel included and that their contributions are valued.

The question also underscores the importance of engaging employees in a way that employers can better understand their specific concerns related to a potential return to the office. For example, working parents may prefer to continue to work at home given the continued uncertainty regarding school openings (and availability of childcare) but may be wary of how that decision will impact their future opportunities or reinforce existing biases about their perceived commitment to work. Conversely, those who do not have children may feel additional pressure to return to the office and work longer hours.

Other employees may be struggling with mental or physical health issues, potentially exacerbated by the toll of the pandemic, which may impact how they view returning to an office environment. Those employees who already felt isolated in the workplace because they are part of an underrepresented group may have additional apprehensions about returning to their work environment.

What can employers do to begin to address such concerns?

Tonya: The first step is to solicit honest feedback from employees, and when you do, believe what they say. Be inclined to think that your employee has no reason to tell you anything other than their truth. And, particularly in times such as these, employers have an obligation to listen. 

One of our best attributes as a nation - our diversity - can contribute to our failing to understand each other. Since populations, in the office and nationwide, are not homogeneous, the best solutions to address any concerns with respect to workplace transitioning require thoughtful analysis and consideration of many perspectives and experiences.  

Since we are not discussing “one-size-fits-all” concepts here, there are few definitive step-by-step solutions. However, a key first step your organization can take is to get buy-in from your leaders. Leadership must acknowledge the nuanced considerations and irrespective of the exact approach, it must be approached with open-mindedness, honesty, and good faith. A skilled DEI strategist will be able to assist along the way.

Jessica: It’s so complex and yet the short answer is simple: engage employees and solicit feedback regarding any current or prospective concerns they may have related to the transition back to the office. How leaders gather such information, however, presents more challenges. Fear of retaliation or other adverse consequences continues to be a significant barrier to employees sharing concerns. Leaders, therefore, need to find ways to alleviate these concerns by developing strategies to make employees as comfortable as possible in sharing their perspectives.

But before employers begin the process of seeking employee feedback, they need to make sure they are ready to act upon what is learned, and should also be as transparent with employees as possible regarding what may or may not be feasible. For example, for employees who are experiencing mental health struggles, employers can ensure that resources are readily accessible, encourage time off as needed, and set boundaries for work/life balance.

How can employers initiate the process of engaging employees?

Tonya: First, reflect upon what your organization looked like prior to life with COVID-19 and consider those things that were effective (or not). Also, remain steadfast as you embark upon this seemingly daunting, yet extremely important process. Some are tired of hearing about DEI efforts, to the point that we now hear the concept often labeled as “diversity fatigue.”[3] Individuals who experience this feel they must walk on what we could label “eggshells of political correctness,” and that “they too” experience hardships that need to be addressed, which further makes identifying concerns and ways to take effective action so challenging for an employer. That is why transparency and honesty are key. Whether it is feeling “seen in the wrong manner” or not “seen enough,” employees have unique challenges. Acknowledging their first-hand accounts is necessary to be able to assist them with addressing those challenges.

A meaningful conversation is a great starting place. When you find common ground among yourselves, employees, and even the clients your company serves, tolerance levels and empathy increase. The more tolerant your work environment is, the more you will discover those common threads that hold us all together and lead to your organization’s success. We are stronger together. 

Jessica: Agree with everything Tonya said. I would add that depending on the size of the workforce and culture, there are several options ranging from small facilitated discussion forums to tailored climate surveys to engage employees. The latter have the benefit of being anonymous and can gather data from more employees, which can be used to drive broader DEI initiatives. Either way, engaging employees with empathy is key to beginning the process.

Tonya and Jessica will continue this dialogue and offer their insights as employers navigate these complex issues through a series of upcoming podcasts.

 


[1] Jessica Caspe, Let’s Continue the Dialogue: Achieving Inclusion in the “New Normal,” May 26, 2020, http://www.epspros.com/news-resources/white-papers/2020/lets-continue-the-dialogue-achieving-inclusion-in-the-new-normal.html.

[2]  Carmen Reinicke, “COVID Has Hurt Women’s Retirement Accounts. Here’s How They Can Rebuild,” Know Your Value Series, CNBC Business, January 27, 2021, www.nbcnews.com/know-your-value/feature/covid-19-has-hurt-women-s-retirement-accounts-here-s-ncna1255870 and Kathy Caprino, “How The Pandemic Is Negatively Impacting Women More Than Men, and What Has To Change,” Forbes Magazine, July 13, 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/kathycaprino/2020/07/13/how-the-pandemic-is-negatively-impacting-women-more-than-men-and-what-has-to-change/?sh=63fd374b554b.

[3] Janice Assare Gassam, Senior Contributor, “Is America Tired of Talking About Diversity and Inclusion?” Forbes Magazine, June 18, 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2019/06/18/is-america-tired-of-talking-about-diversity-and-inclusion/?sh=3c84ae2abbe2.