Looking for a winning workplace strategy? Level the playing field.

The importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in the future of work cannot be overstated. Fortunately, there are steps businesses can take to make the workplace work better for everyone. Providing greater flexibility and choice is one of them.

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The future of work has arrived. Here’s how to make it work for you.

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“Diversity is about all of us, and about us having to figure out how to walk through this world together.”

– Jaqueline Woodson, Novelist


It’s no secret that not all employees are eager to return to the office. What is surprising is that this reluctance isn’t shared and understood equally, that in a world rife with the effects of societal inequality, the Work from Home (WFH) vs. Return to Office (RTO) debate, too, has a basic fairness component.


How stark is the issue? A study by Future Forum found only 3% of black knowledge workers want to return to full-time co-located work, compared to 21% of their white peers. Women, especially working moms, have expressed similar reluctance, with only 35% of working moms indicating they are planning to work as they did prior to the pandemic. Meanwhile, Americans with disabilities account for just 2% of the overall U.S. workforce, suggesting they’ve either been reluctant to enter the ranks of full-time, on-site employment from the start, or they haven’t been given the opportunity. One LinkedIn survey of 2,001 LBGTQ+ professionals found that nearly a quarter, 24%, were not open about their identity in their workplace, while a similar share, 26%, worried being open would cause coworkers to treat them differently. And nearly a third, 31%, say they’ve faced blatant discrimination or microaggressions at work.


WFH? RTO? Let’s talk about DEI. It stands for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (some organizations add a B to their DEI frameworks for “belonging”) and it’s poised to take center stage as this latest chapter in the annals of workplace continues to unfold.


Return to the workplace, or reinvent it? 


A new era of work demands a renewed commitment to workplace inclusion. This is bigger than merely “returning to work”; it’s about reinventing how we work together. A truly equitable workplace, one in which no one feels isolated or marginalized and everyone has access to resources and support, should cut across demographics. It should place values like openness, transparency, and compassion on a par with principles like vision, consistency, and reputation that leaders routinely champion in creating a culture of success.


Empathy is a good place to start. Understanding why people outside the majority are unwilling to return to the office may be the first step in reversing the trend. Conversely, ignoring their reluctance presents its own set of dangers. After all, employees have plenty of options and more and more are voting with their feet. Investing in a progressive DEI framework is a way for companies to make sure their best and brightest don’t jump ship for an organization that didn’t wait until it was too late to ensure its workplace culture provides equal opportunities to all.


Building blocks to success (a.k.a. where the perfect meets the practical)


It’s a beautiful idea – filling the ranks of your workforce with people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, who are free to express themselves, free to be themselves, without fear of being excluded or putting their careers in jeopardy.


But there are practical concerns – like how to get it done. Creating a supportive environment fostering greater diversity and inclusion doesn’t happen with the flip of a switch and it won’t happen overnight. It takes time and it takes a strategy.


How to create a more inclusive workplace? Steps that can and should be taken include:  

  • Providing multiple channels for employee feedback: Employees like to be heard. They need to be heard. If concerns are ignored, they fester into open wounds that can be far more harmful to any organization’s culture. From feedback surveys to weekly one-to-one meetings, employees who are given an opportunity to express what’s on their minds are more likely to thrive.
  • Creating safe spaces: The Oxford English Dictionary defines a safe space as “a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment or any other emotional physical harm.” Every workplace should aspire to embody this definition, whether it’s at home, in the office or a third space.
  • Mind your managers: Hiring managers who are predisposed to taking an active interest in their people and/or encouraging your existing managers to do so can help to foster a supportive and nurturing environment.
  • For employees with disabilities, making sure remote meeting technologies support all their needs and don’t exclusively rely on visual or auditory elements, providing resources to navigate assistive technologies, and following policies outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act are all ways to ensure a positive (and empowering) workplace experience. 

Flexible work also has a critical role to play in any successful DEI strategy. Giving employees the freedom and choice to work from where it works forces companies to invest in and utilize technology that gives employees more control over when and where they work.


Above all, a hybrid-friendly policy acknowledges a full-on pivot to the future, one free of the structural inequities that plagued the pre-pandemic workplace era. 


The ROI of DEI


Diversity, Equity and Inclusion shouldn’t be perceived as simply an HR problem. It’s a systemic issue workplace leaders find themselves in the unique position to redress by promoting flexible, diverse, equitable and inclusive working environments. 


But it’s also an opportunity. Effective DEI initiatives promote higher levels of trust and loyalty in the workplace. Hiring and supporting a diverse workforce adds perspective and strength to the team. Not least, it positively impacts that other salient indicator of workplace success – the bottom line. A 2020 McKinsey study showed companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity on their executive teams have a 36% higher likelihood of outperformance on EBIT margin, the financial ratio used to measure a company’s operating efficiency. On the gender and disability fronts, the cost/benefit analysis nets out similarly in favor of diversity. Whether it’s aligning with U.S. disability nondiscrimination laws, closing the pay gap, or improving diversity levels in the C-suite, what’s good for equality, what constitutes basic fairness, happens to be good for business too.


Diversity focuses on the company’s make-up, and making sure the widest range of social and cultural identity groups is represented. 


Equity expresses empathy for how individuals are faced with societal challenges, based on their social identity groups at the cultural and industry levels. 


Inclusion is creating a welcoming environment for any and all.


Belonging is about making people feel valued for who they are and what they bring to the workplace. 


The business of workplace is changing and new approaches are continuing to emerge. The post-pandemic era is also serving notice that social equity – the impartiality and fairness with which we treat one another – matters more than previous workplace leaders imagined, or were too preoccupied by other priorities to properly address. A lot more.


A thoughtfully considered DEI framework seeks to foster (and be accountable for) true workplace diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. It’s a mindset, a values shift and a series of action steps combined. Successfully implemented, DEI creates a culture shift that can make the workplace work better for everyone. It improves workplace dynamics and drives productivity; it increases loyalty and facilitates recruiting – and the rise of the hybrid work model is an important pillar to build on.


Social inequality in the world sadly still persists. The good news is that workplace leaders – and how they adapt to the post-office future of work – are well positioned to set an example everyone can follow.

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