Could a more diverse workforce be one of the benefits to emerge from the global pandemic? Janette Marx, CEO of global workforce solutions provider, Airswift makes the case that lockdown has broken down the lingering psychological hurdles while technology has allowed difference to be encouraged and enabled.
It wasn’t that long ago that the unexpected presence of a small child on an international video call hit the headlines and fed social media feeds for weeks. Now, we barely bat an eyelid when our video calls feature partners wandering into shot, a pet joining in, or a toddler breaking the ice with a demand for attention.
When some members of the global workforce were able to retreat to makeshift home offices, they suddenly got insights into colleagues’ personal lives. The cookie-cutter personas molded to fit seamlessly into cubicles rapidly unraveled. Team members discovered who had the most esoteric taste in books, who had the most unexpected or fascinating hobbies, and who had the most rococo taste in home décor. But more importantly, they also entered a shared world of family commitments and responsibilities outside the office.
And it was all OK. The corporate world did not collapse. Instead, most people found deep wells of tolerance, indeed acceptance, that the individuals they work with are more than just the sum of their professional parts. It has been one of the unexpected outcomes of the pandemic – and one of its few positive effects – that around the world, co-workers have become more than just colleagues. They are actual, three-dimensional people.
A culture that fits
This is both an interesting opportunity and a challenge for those of us concerned with developing a more diverse workforce, particularly in industries such as energy, engineering, construction and others that are noted for being broadly homogenous.
First, the lockdown has shown us that a number of traits that determine whether someone ‘fits’ into an organization’s culture can be quite superficial.
We know that a strong and attractive corporate culture plays a vital role in business success: it helps attract and retain the talented individuals that drive companies forward. We also know that corporate culture can be the differentiating factor when securing new customers and winning bids. And we know that corporate culture plays a vital role in keeping a company together and reassuring employees in times of stress, as in the current moment.
There is a risk that corporate culture can morph into something more rigid. The desire to hire people that ‘fit’ can translate into the hiring of people that ‘are just like us’ – whether that’s appearance, golf handicap, or education. A strong culture is incredibly valuable. A monoculture can be extremely damaging long term. This is why the most successful businesses keep their culture under constant review to make sure it is still helping and not hindering the company.
What we are experiencing now helps that process enormously. What does ‘fit’ mean when our individuality is no longer so well hidden under a working uniform? There is a chance here to think again about what matters most, which can be the often-intangible attributes like attitude and values, when the more tangible factors are no longer present.
This is the psychological shift that has been facilitated by the new widespread working-at-home experience, and it’s a very useful and occasionally necessary first step in creating a more diverse workforce. It does mean however, that the existing culture may need to be reviewed and updated to reflect new realities.
Families and flexibility
There are also more practical aspects to diversity that remote working can contribute to.
Lockdown has proved without question that productivity and presenteeism are not the same thing. Talking to our clients and candidates, we have found that people who had previously taken a firm stance against remote working have now changed their minds. With a six-month proof-of-concept behind them, they have acknowledged the arguments in favor of more remote working and recognized the value it offers.
The ripple effect is that more businesses have become open to flexible work patterns. Working the standard 8am – 5pm workday is almost antithetical to raising children and running a family. Split shifts of earlier starts, later finishes and, critically, family breaks during the day, are much more realistic and as we have now proved no less productive.
That kind of flexibility makes the workplace more attractive to ambitious individuals with family commitments – which is a large constituent of employees. It certainly helps keep more
talented women in the workplace by making family life possible, and it also helps by breaking down the assumption that responsibility for family life can be shared more equitably.
By the same token, promotion through relationships has had to take a back seat when extracurricular activities, sports junkets, post-work happy hours, and miscellaneous ‘get-togethers’ are no longer possible. Once again, it focuses the mind on what really matters – an individual’s skills, the quality of their work, their performance. It also opens up opportunities to people who would otherwise skip these events because of their domestic or other commitments. A virtual cocktail party or match-viewing is a far more achievable proposition than the real-life counterpart for many.
The final piece of this picture is that an increase in remote working opens up the workforce to people who live in different areas of the country. There are certainly advantages to having industry hotspots: that oil and gas is primarily focused around the Gulf Mexico, and IT in California and the Pacific North-West has created hugely beneficial infrastructure and ecosystems for those industries.
It has also put up barriers to valuable people from other sectors or areas. People who prefer a rural lifestyle, or need to remain near family members, or who simply baulk at local house prices can be inadvertently excluded. De-coupling location and expertise can bring in people with more diverse backgrounds and fresh thinking, while cross-pollinating ideas from different sectors.
The fact is that creating a more diverse workforce is important. It requires a proactive and targeted strategy that explores and examines almost every aspect and every department of the organization – and then clear tactics for change. No one would seriously suggest that simply reacting to the events of the past few months is an adequate replacement for these programs.
The new reality has created a more fertile environment in which those changes can be made. It has opened eyes and minds to what is actually possible and demonstrated the viability of many practical solutions. Our challenge now is to build on the opportunity, however unfortunate the circumstances in which it arose, and ensure that talent thrives in our businesses regardless of what it looks like or sounds like, or where it lives.