The COVID-19 pandemic seemed to come out of nowhere, rapidly causing economic chaos, severely disrupting people’s lives and creating an uncertain future. The struggles of American to cope has been painful, exacerbated by the turmoil of protests over persistent social and economic inequalities. Many businesses are global today, so the impact on Americans is not limited by borders. The pandemic is a global struggle, and so are the protests, shedding light on continued inequities in health, economic opportunities, social inclusion and business behaviors.
When the government shut down businesses to force people to stay home, it became a reality check. Business leaders had to quickly find ways to adapt which many did by enabling remote work. However, not all businesses can operate with remote workers, like restaurants and food manufacturing plants. The situation was such that the systemic inequalities built into the economic system became apparent. Higher paid workers, like office and tech workers, were able to continue working and getting paid, via the use of technology to do remote work. Lower paid workers, many of them diverse, lost their jobs because they could not work remotely or were required to return to work amid concerns about health and safety in the workplace.
It was just too much to ask of people, especially when coupled with multiple tragedies involving law enforcement. People protested, and the protests brought to light two main points. One is that lower paid people are often asked to bear society’s burdens, like working at grocery stores or chicken processing plants during a pandemic so people could continue buying food, while others worked safely and comfortably at home. Second is the fact that many businesses had not upheld their past promises, such as increasing diversity in the workforce or at leadership levels. The promises were made over the past five years, but little progress could be reported.
So, the pandemic has taught businesses a number of important lessons. One is that businesses must be agile, meaning they can assess a situation and respond quickly. The businesses that had already been shifting to new operating models in which employees worked at home at least part of the week had a much easier time maintaining operations. These businesses also had the technology in place that enabled remote work, whereas many organizations had to scramble to get the appropriate systems working. Restaurants and retailers able to quickly shift to curbside and takeout services did much better than those that could not.
But one of the main lessons of the convergence of the pandemic and the protests is that business leaders cannot just talk about things like transparency, equal opportunities, pay equity and elimination of bias in hiring and other employee processes. They have to have a strategy, measurable goals, and a means of holding their managers accountable for making progress. A business cannot say it cares about the health and safety of employees and then hide the fact some employees were sent home with COVID or refuse to pay hazard pay. They cannot publicly claim diversity goals they fail to meet and never do anything to change the trajectory of progress.
Some good always comes out of bad though. From this point forward, businesses will be more human-centric, more socially conscious, and more aware of the consequences of their financial decisions on their customers and employees. Many business leaders now better understand the importance of employee work-life balance, the power of technology to widen the talent pool to increase diversity by accessing a remote labor force, the need for team-building leaders skilled in internal and external communication, and the value of inclusive leadership.
The world is a place where people are connected and unwilling to tolerate empty promises, whether they concern health, safety, compensation, benefits, work-life balance, training and promotion opportunities, and so on. Organizations must reimagine the “how” – how will they build a truely inclusive culture; how will they develop an organization that collaborates; how will they encourage employees to communicate their true employee experience; how will they become more agile so the next major business disruption is not so disruptive; and how will they finally, once and for all, overcome the biases and blind spots that continue to exclude so many people of color from fully participating in the most successful country in the world.