Coronavirus (COVID-19), Diversity & Inclusion

The Impact of COVID-19 and Remote Work on DEI

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended every aspect of work life around the globe, including the burgeoning world of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). While there’s never an ideal time for a pandemic to emerge and hinder progress toward any goal, the timing of the pandemic could hardly have been worse for DEI initiatives.

diversity and inclusion

DEI was already often treated as an afterthought relative to more concrete and traditional goals like revenue, costs, and profits at most organizations. The need to focus on massive logistical challenges in the face of COVID-19 only drew more attention away from the relatively nascent DEI world.

Moreover, with millions of workers shifting to remote work, the collaboration and socialization that are often essential to building a sense of inclusiveness were further handicapped.

We reached out to DEI experts to see how the COVID-19 pandemic specifically impacted their DEI efforts and how they plan to stay the course in response.

Less Opportunity for Group Discussions

One of the most fundamental benefits of focusing on diversity and inclusion is that it drives frank and open discussions among diverse individuals that help promote greater understanding of and appreciation for diverse experiences and backgrounds. With the shift to remote work, there are fewer informal opportunities for these kinds of interactions. Companies that don’t proactively create these opportunities in other formats risk losing their benefits altogether.

“In the wake of the social unrest after the murder of George Floyd, we sensed in our daily stand up meeting, that our colleagues were missing opportunities to connect over breakfast and lunch as we did when we were mostly in one physical location prior to the pandemic,” says Cydney Koukol, EVP of Communities with Talent Plus, Inc. That realization led to the creation of virtual conversations at Talent Plus called Perspective.

Perspective conversations began on the Friday following George Floyd’s death. The first one was scheduled for an hour and lasted nearly 2 hours, Koukol says. Since then, “[S]essions have included Black Lives Matter, the Supreme Court decision around workplace bias and homosexuality in the midst of Gay Pride Month, the reopening of schools after the advent of COVID-19, interracial marriage, the life of Martin Luther King, AAPI and the Asian Community, and the emerging local celebrations of Indigenous People.”

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In the wake of the shift to remote work, Koukol says these sessions have become virtual. “These sessions have been well-received,” she continues. “Currently we are in the midst of adding three new individuals to our DEI Think Tank Team that oversees this initiative. They have asked to have a facilitator work with them in a workshop environment as the previous group had the opportunity to do. They felt that having that type of orientation together helped to create a stronger group that was able to lean in and listen.”

Appreciating Increased Stress and the Importance of Mental Health

It’s no surprise that a pandemic infecting hundreds of millions of people and taking the lives of over 5 million people—not to mention the disruption to everyday life—has caused significant mental and emotional stress for countless workers worldwide.

“Remote work was not new to Avanade at the start of COVID-19—our workforce was already completely enabled to work remotely,” says Hallam Sargeant, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at Avanade. “But there’s a difference between being enabled to work remotely and doing it, day-in, day-out for almost two years during a pandemic,” he notes. “We’ve seen the need for flexible working arrangements as new demands were placed on caregivers.”

Sargeant says Avanade has seen a loss of connection without in-person time among colleagues. Companies that embrace and prioritize DEI often find that those efforts help employees more effectively deal with mental and emotional stress, in part because they have a sense of community and belonging at work.

“We’ve seen an increased need for mental health resources and support during this challenging, isolating time,” Sargeant says. “Those problems are not specific to DEI, but I think we’ve seen how an increased focus and investment into DEI initiatives help companies tackle these challenges. One of the pillars of our I&D framework is belonging, or ensuring that everyone can be their authentic selves at work and that they feel welcomed and valued.”

Leaning into DEI Amid the Pandemic

Rather than seeing COVID-19 as an obstacle to DEI, Kristie King, Senior Director of DEI at Doma, argues that the pandemic has actually made her organization stronger with respect to DEI.

“At Doma, we pride ourselves in the fact that we are breaking through the barriers that have held back the title insurance industry for centuries,” King says. “This same resolve applies to how we engage with our workforce, especially in these unprecedented times. We understand our obligation to foster an inclusive environment and the benefit that brings, which is why we are being very intentional about our focus on inclusivity, understanding that this pandemic has upended the way we experience work and live our lives. It is for this reason that we are even more committed to ensuring our employees feel heard, valued, respected and are fully supported.”

Diverse Hiring: A Silver Lining for Remote Work

As noted above, the widespread shift to remote work has made it more difficult to bring colleagues together for the kind of close collaboration that supports community and inclusiveness. But remote work isn’t all bad for DEI. The employment model also presents opportunities for organizations that might not have a great deal of access to diversity in their own backyards.

“DE&I has certainly been augmented by the rise of remote work,” says Nate Tsang, founder and CEO of Wall Street Zen. “The ability to hire outside of state and national boundaries more than ever means new opportunities, and new considerations. You can gain a wider range of diverse backgrounds, opinions, and education thanks to the wider availability of candidates. At the same time, we as a global society have to make sure the best candidates actually have the chance to apply and be hired for these new remote jobs.”

DEI efforts were really starting to gain ground in the final years of the 2010s, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and upended virtually every aspect of corporate life around the world. While COVID-19 certainly hasn’t killed DEI, it has created new obstacles and realigned priorities, often away from DEI efforts. Companies that continue to place great value on DEI are nevertheless finding new and innovative ways to continue to embrace and support DEI efforts.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.