Now more than ever...Inclusion in Uncertain Times
Migrant workers walking long distances to reach home - a place of safety and belonging. People from Northeast India being called racist names and shunned from their own country. Suspicion and hushed whispers about Tablighi Jamaat, while avoiding the Muslim vegetable vendor who’s trying to make a quiet living. Physical and verbal threats captured on video, against healthcare workers as potential carriers of coronavirus, when in fact, they are working harder than ever to save lives.
For many people, work is no longer a source of dignity, connection or meaning, but in fact, a dreaded necessity. What can organizational leaders do, to ensure that now - more than ever before - they invest in efforts to make their employees feel safe, respected, included and valued at work? In recent times, we have been inundated with stories of harsh inequalities coming to light. While these may have already existed, the pandemic and growing economic crisis have magnified these social inequalities, forcing us as a society to react, respond or ignore accordingly. In our line of work as DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) consultants, we often reflect on how this actively or unconsciously plays out at work, because, well, workplaces are microcosms of society.
First, let’s start with defining inclusion. We all feel like we intuitively understand what this term means. For us, the definition from Davidson and Ferdman (2002, p.1) resonates well, “experiences of inclusion result when policies, structures, practices, and norms of behavior are aligned in such a way that every member of a given collective (community, organization, or network) has a fair and equal opportunity to access the joint resources of that collective”. In other words, people feel included when they feel like they belong, their unique contributions are valued and when they feel safe to express themselves authentically. To remind ourselves that this experience is key to individual and organizational success - especially now and in the inevitably changing future - we focus on the ways we can create new awareness about the experience of inclusion (“Realize”), how we can communicate our commitment to it (“Reiterate”) and how we can shape a different future collectively (“Reimagine”).
As we witness and experience the impact of this crisis we are living in today, we ask ourselves what has changed significantly for workplaces. The one aspect that has changed significantly is the experience of working from home for many in the organized, professional workforce, balancing both professional and personal aspects of our lives. We now realize the power, benefits and opportunities of working flexibly, (especially the time saved by unending traffic that we dreaded!). Facetime in the physical workplace is no longer as important as it used to be. Maybe it will no longer be a factor during performance rating discussions. However, there are challenges as well.
With work at home being unfairly distributed, there are additional pressures of juggling caregiving responsibilities - often impacting primary caregivers, mostly women.
We have heard from numerous people how they are working more now, more than ever before.
Our class differences and ability to even ‘work from home’ is becoming more visible. Do we have the right set-up, power back-up, private space and high-powered internet connectivity? Do we pause to check if people may not have access to all this and therefore understand that this will make it difficult to operate from home efficiently?
Are we aware of the psychological stress of social isolation, financial stress, and the culture of silence around everything that’s happening around us?
Have we paused to recognize and reflect on how all of these changes, in combination, are impacting people and their relationship to work and each other?
Clearly the way we work is changing, but are our leaders adapting their leadership style to create workplaces that create spaces for such open and honest questioning? In today's volatile workplaces, it becomes more critical to demonstrate inclusive leadership. Pivoting to behaviors that emphasize openness (resulting in employees feeling safe), equality and empowerment (resulting in employees having equal chances to thrive) and belonging (resulting in positive connection to each other and the organization) is needed immediately.
Leadership that has at its center vulnerability, understanding, courage and accountability (what we call the "New VUCA") is likely to encourage and galvanize workplaces more effectively than more traditional top-down/hierarchical, controlling, performance-centric and outcome centric leadership. More than ever before, leaders must start seeing employees as purpose-driven individuals first, and profit-driving resources last.
With such an empathetic and collective approach to leadership, we give ourselves an opportunity to re-evaluate obsolete and unequal systems/structures that have allowed unfair and inequitable practices to continue.
How can we create systems that dismantle the inequalities that are embedded in our policies, practices, and processes?
How do we design mindful new ones - systems that are driven by purpose, equity and sustainability?
More questions than answers. And therefore a unique opportunity to realise the new dimensions of inclusion, reiterate with a compassionate voice and reimagine new ways of working and driving business inclusively and with a new purpose. There’s no room for complacency - now more than ever, we need inclusion at work.