DE&I & WFH: Lockdown fads or the future of work?

Brent Herman our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 19 September 2023

I’m sure that you, like me, have found yourself reading countless articles about the pandemic, lockdown and their effects on the workplace. Nowadays, I’m sure it’s common that we feel completely fatigued at the thought of ‘that topic’ again, given the hardship it has caused and the damage it has left in its wake.


But we might also appreciate that the world of work changed because of it…or did it?

Have we been too quick to believe that we’ve implemented lasting change?

During the pandemic, organisational agendas shifted to different ways of working. A focus on areas like diversity, equity and inclusion took centre stage because the pandemic highlighted clear differences in society. Equality and equity were challenged more than ever before - and more so given events surrounding the death of George Floyd.


What strikes me though is how quick we have been to forget, move on and revert to type. There are so many lessons we took from the pandemic as a global community - we talked about them, wrote articles about them and changed our working lives because of them. 


But now, I often hear from clients that while they learnt so much during this time, they now find themselves losing the learning in favour of what used to be. It’s becoming a swift return to the status quo. 


Not a bad thing, you may think. After all, if it worked, why change it? Well, to my mind, that way of thinking holds back progress. Change happens - but why bother if all you do is go back to where you came from?

Fad or future: 2 ways the pandemic should change the workplace

The two points below, the DE&I agenda and working from home, seemed to be working themselves into our psyche during lockdown. But now, do we have to recognise them as lockdown fads?

I’d argue that neither of these should be fads. They are critically important across industries around the world, but it feels like we really haven’t learnt from the lessons of the pandemic, and many organisations are reverting to type.

DE&I is starting to feel tokenistic, and businesses are calling people back into the office full time (a point to note, I do agree that we need face time, but with compromise). We must find the middle ground, and find it quickly before we undo all of the good that came from such an awful situation.

1. Ramping up the DE&I agenda

While there are pockets of excellence which should be applauded - such as the hotel chain Marriott International and quality of life services firm Sodexo - diversity and inclusion agendas in many organisations are proving hard to shape and shift. 


There’s a concerning trend of many DE&I roles being defunded, especially in the US, and much of what was invested in during the pandemic seems to be losing momentum and fading to the background. 


That said, I have to be critical and ask whether it was a priority in the first place, or whether it was simply a fad? Many organisations want to talk about DE&I - something known as ‘diversity washing’ - but very few act or invest. 


Yet, the world has changed and with the pandemic behind us in the main, we are left with the same challenges we had before. We still see gender pay inequity, low levels of diverse talent representation in organisations especially at senior level, and limited opportunities for social mobility. 


Many of these challenges are driven behaviourally and structurally, and we need to address both aspects. This has existed all along, it was only that the pandemic that brought it more to the foreground. 


2. The flexibility of working from home

Lockdown also meant working from home for many people. Companies mandated this in the context we found ourselves in, and many people made significant choices and changes to their lifestyles. This was the future of work, or so we thought. 


We now hear of many organisations calling people back to the office a minimum of  three days a week, and some asking for a full return to the office. Is this unreasonable? Of course not, but there has to be a compromise, too. 


It’s of course critical that we connect in person at times as this really is the most important way to build a collaborative culture, and it’s also proven to benefit innovation and teamwork. It also seems to me that GenZ could really benefit from being around more experienced colleagues. On the other hand, calling people back into the office when that wasn’t the expectation is causing a lot of ill feeling. Perhaps leadership teams can better articulate the reasons for the return to the office rather than simply mandating it, for example.


Overall, the pandemic highlighted what a lot of us already knew and experienced - that having the flexibility of working from home and gaining a better work/life balance really does work - and provided a stage to do something more about it. 


My challenge to you though is whether that flexibility is truly ingrained in your organisation, or whether the momentum is lost and we are back in 2019.


Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet. It’s all about what works best for your business, in your context and understanding what will best benefit your sector. 


If you’d like support in developing the DE&I strategy for your organisation or working with your leadership team to create an effective workplace culture, get in touch with me directly and let’s have a chat.

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