The diversity and inclusivity agenda isn’t new. However, for a long time, it has existed predominately on the edges of plans and strategies, always present but seldom fully embraced.
Now, as societies and economies prepare for the unknowable post-coronavirus world, organisations are reevaluating what it means to be a sustainable business. Recent weeks have reminded us all that innovative and agile approaches to work are key components of survival through crisis. Collaboration, trust and mutual support have also proved critical to team and organisational endurance.
With their high impact on innovation, and their influence on creating cultures of psychological safety, diversity and inclusion will be more important than ever as we move from shock to adaptation and, eventually, emergence from the effects of the pandemic.
New world, new rules?
Speaking at the recent Davos 2020, Mark Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, announced: “capitalism as we have known it, is dead.”
Of course, Benioff was speaking before Covid-19 took hold, but the roots of that statement will be as relevant when the crisis subsides, if not more so, as companies and societies renegotiate rules of engagement.
By aggressively prioritising profit margins for shareholders, many corporations have found themselves fostering global inequality and courting environmental and social disaster.
The days of shareholder primacy and profit delivery as the sole objects of business are under greater scrutiny than ever before. Business leaders are acknowledging they have a more critical role play in terms of the environment and society and governance.
For many, this means reorientating their modus operandi to focus more on purpose and stakeholder capital.
So, where do diversity and inclusion fit into this brave new world?
To identify an organisation’s purpose means engaging with its broader ecosystem—one that includes multiple stakeholders. But most importantly, employees.
Any conversation about employee well-being and engagement must then include a discussion about diversity and inclusion.
“Diversity but no inclusion, can’t last long because people will feel like ‘this is not my home’. Or, inclusion without diversity is merely a club”
“Creating an inclusive culture and attracting a diverse talent pool is in our best interest” argues Shiela Vinczeller, Chief Human Resources Officer at Aptargroup Inc. Consequently, business leaders are starting to rapidly recognise the importance of diversity and inclusion to their future success.
Diversity and inclusion—one coin, two sides
Diversity and inclusion are often used interchangeably, but they represent two stand-alone ideas. When we talk about diversity in the workplace, what we’re looking at is the make-up of our organisations.
Employees want their workplace to mimic the world outside. “Literally and figuratively speaking the workplace should be diverse, fluid, mobile, connected like the world around us,” says Sheila.
Inclusion, on the other hand, is more concerned with how diversity is integrated. It’s the process by which organisations actively make their diverse workforce “feel like they belong, and be their whole selves at work.”
One can’t be truly effective without the other. “Diversity but no inclusion, can’t last long because people will feel like ‘this is not my home’. Or, inclusion without diversity is merely a club,” warns Sheila.
To have any impact, organisations need to ensure they invest in nurturing both diversity and inclusion. Otherwise, their efforts will be fruitless.
Innovation is born from diversity
“Diverse teams, diverse brains, diverse conversations result in more creativity”
Innovation has long been the poster child of diversity strategies. The research linking increased diversity with greater innovation is well-established. In the global response to the Covid-19 the importance of innovation has been amplified in unprecedented ways.
We seen striking examples of creative and novel thinking in response to new and difficult challenges. We have also learned, in case we hadn’t taken the hint before, that innovation is not an optional extra. All companies in all industries will need to need to apply an innovative mindset to their work if they are to survive the times ahead.
As such, earnest diversity approaches are one of the strongest tactics leaders have available to them. There are existing challenges, though.
As automation promises to disrupt the workplace by taking over all our manual tasks, businesses must raise their game. Furthermore, at a time where employee engagement is at its lowest ebb, there’s growing evidence to indicate a diverse and inclusive workforce increases motivation and improves productivity.
“Diverse teams, diverse brains, diverse conversations result in more creativity,” says Sheila.
But why? Admittedly, trying to identify solutions with so many different viewpoints can feel counterproductive. But, this is precisely the type of environment where innovation flourishes
“When you have many different opinions coming together, you have a tough time. The brain works harder, but it gets a better result. And I think that’s a winning formula all around.”
Walking the path of diversity and inclusion may feel like the road less travelled. But by creating psychologically safe places, new and different ideas have space, time and freedom to germinate and grow.
How can business leaders help organisations engender a diverse and inclusive culture?
For starters, “leadership commitment is extremely important” says Sheila. Secondly, she believes organisations need to have a goal with set targets, so there’s accountability.
“You can’t just wait for diversity to happen. So, it’s about putting in programmes or institutions that will help you get there”.
For instance, by making your recruitment process diverse, you will, in turn, attract diversity. But this takes energy. Sheila advises “you have to put in extra effort to open up your company to multiple pools of talent.”
The next thing to consider is your attractiveness to diverse applicants. Shelia says, “You have to work on your employer brand and tell the story of what your company is about. How do you think about your internal culture?”
Another vital aspect is creating the capabilities and skills needed for inclusive leadership. But, this is something that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to all of us. Why? “Because inclusive leadership takes effort. It’s hard work because you have to interact with, and relate to, people who are not like you.”
To create a sustainable, diverse and inclusive culture requires effort on multiple fronts. “And it has to be deliberate, intentional—a continuous action until it becomes second nature,” concludes Shiela.
“You can’t just wait for diversity to happen. So, it’s about putting in programmes or institutions that will help you get there”
In times of crisis and after, this conscious commitment to harnessing the potential of D&I becomes more important than ever. In times of extreme stress, the standard human reaction is to shut down and close off, not open up. If leaders are to cultivate diversity and inclusion within their organisations, they need to be even more wary than usual of contracted, isolating thinking – in themselves and in their teams.
One of the strongest messages to emerge from social distancing and isolation is that humans are at their very best when they’re connected and engaged with each other. Diversity and inclusion are the ingredients of deep and meaningful interactions.
This is not fluffy stuff. The business outcomes of a diverse and inclusive workplace culture go beyond feeling good about ourselves. What we’re talking about is greater competitiveness, better results, and ultimately delivering key business objectives, time and time again.