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5 crucial diversity & inclusion lessons we need to learn from COVID-19

We are living in challenging and uncertain times right now. Unprecedented change is happening on a daily basis for businesses, communities and individuals alike and the amount of coverage and opinions can feel somewhat overwhelming. But one thing is for sure: inequity is rife in our society and we need to pay attention and adapt accordingly.

diversity inclusion lessons COVID-19

1. Flexible working is the future

OK, so this isn’t breaking news, but the reality is many employees have repeatedly been told that their jobs couldn’t be done remotely, only to find out that they actually could. Imagine having a disability or caretaker responsibilities and asking for accommodations at work that would enable you to effectively balance your circumstances whilst fulfilling your role. 

Often these accommodations are considered too expensive, impractical, or simply not feasible. Fast forward to the midst of a global pandemic and it's remarkable to see what the majority of businesses are capable of. Not only have many transformed almost overnight to support remote working and the needs of virtual teams, but they have managed to do so quickly and en masse.

The truth is, if more organisations had embraced remote working sooner, the situation with COVID-19 would have been much easier to navigate with less commercial disruption, financial impact, and emotional stress.

2. Privilege is invisible to those that have it

If you’re in a position to stockpile, you’re privileged. If you’re “not worried about catching the virus because you’re young/fit/healthy," you’re privileged. Having financial security, the ability to drive, access to a vehicle, good health, and even a reliable internet connection are all privileges that many of us take for granted. With over 14 million people living in poverty in the UK and a further 15 million living with at least one long-term health condition, there are a lot of people (particularly the elderly, those experiencing homelessness, and folks from low income backgrounds) who simply have not been afforded the same opportunities.

Recognising our own privilege is one thing but it’s what you choose to do with it that really matters! In this case, donating to your local food bank or offering to shop for neighbours who need to self isolate would be proactive ways to use your privilege to help others.

But don’t stop there: think about how you can continue to leverage your privilege to support, amplify, and elevate those who often go unheard in your communities, your workplaces, and society as a whole. If you can, offer your workspace to charities who are pushing for positive social change, recommend someone who can offer an alternative perspective to take your speaking slot at a conference, and immerse yourself in experiences different from your own to listen, learn, and understand how to be an active ally for underserved communities.

diversity inclusion lessons COVID-19

3. Everyone has mental health

Despite our best efforts to talk more openly about our mental health, there is still a level of stigma attached to it. Some fear it will be perceived as a weakness, others feel it might hold them back professionally, and many believe that they will be unfairly judged as a result of disclosing information about their mental health. If the current situation has taught us anything, it’s that none of us are completely safe from the stress and anxiety that a global pandemic brings, whether you’re concerned about loved ones, worried about navigating an ever-changing situation, or trying to stay safe as a vulnerable person.

Many are finding themselves in unimaginable circumstances, experiencing loneliness as a result of social distancing, being impacted by redundancies, or facing significant income challenges for those who are self-employed. Fortunately, there are many helpful wellbeing resources and tips available during these difficult times and practising self care is now more important than ever.

4. It’s time to rethink how we interact with each other

Social distancing might feel quite alien, particularly for the tactile folks amongst us, but the reality is, handshakes or hugs in the workplace have never really worked for a lot of people. Take for example your Muslim colleague who can't make any physical contact with people of another gender. Or your team mate who simply wants to avoid awkward physical contact in the office. The COVID-19 outbreak has seen all manners of creative greetings being introduced, including foot taps, elbow bumps, simple waves, and the Hindu greeting ‘namaste.' Will a shift that was primarily driven by hygiene encourage us to implement progressive, inclusive changes around how we greet one another in professional environments? 

COVID-19 hasn’t only affected our physical interactions, but it has also forced a rapid rise in online conferences, training sessions, and community events. Whilst many see this as less engaging than traditional physical events, it could increase participation for working carers who can’t attend evening events in person, for folks with autism who need to avoid noisy spaces due to experiencing sensitivity to sound or for those who might find networking overwhelming like introverts and people with depression. Digital engagement could be key to broadening participation, reaching a larger geographical spread and breaking down barriers to access for many.

Having said this, our reliance on video calls may also create barriers for folks who are deaf, hearing impaired, or whose first language isn’t native. Providing subtitles and ensuring that everyone speaks clearly and slowly with their faces visible and well lit will help to increase understanding and accessibility. Minimising background noise and muting when you’re not speaking will also help, and if a cute baby or cat crosses the screen, take a break to acknowledge that moment of happiness and resume as soon as no one's view is blocked.

diversity inclusion lessons COVID-19

5. We must commit to challenging bias in ourselves and others

Since COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China, the UK has seen a significant increase in discrimination, xenophobia, and violence towards people who appear to be members of East Asian communities. Businesses have suffered, areas like Chinatown have been avoided, and individuals have been verbally and physically assaulted for somehow having an assumed connection or association with coronavirus. These beliefs are not only unreasonable, they are inaccurate and unjustified and are fuelled by harmful stereotypes, sensationalist media, and fake news. If we’re not careful, these things can subconsciously influence the way we view the world, leading to bias against an individual or group in a way that is closed-minded, prejudicial, or unfair. 

This is just one example of bias and the damaging impact it can have in society. Bias also exists in relation to perceived age, religion, sexual orientation, gender, upbringing, seniority, ethnicity, education, marital status, physical ability, and combinations of any and all of these at once.

The key thing is to remember: you are not responsible for your first thought; you are responsible for your second thought and your first action. So before you allow yourself to walk past the Chinese supermarket, scroll past the Chinese options on your takeaway app, or reject an application from a candidate with an East Asian name, bring your unconscious thoughts into your consciousness, challenge them, and ask yourself whether your thinking is based on factual information before you take action.

COVID-19 has made our current reality incredibly scary right now. We have to believe it will pass, although we have no idea how long that could take. What we do know is we have an opportunity to adapt and evolve. We have a chance to reflect, regroup, and reassess. And we have the very real prospect of creating a more equitable and empowered future for all.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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