Author

Jesse Bridges

At the end of 2020, we reflected on the symphony of crises that upended life and work as we knew it. Together, an international health pandemic, an overdue reckoning with racial injustice and inequity, an economic downturn, and an ongoing mental health crisis disrupted and continues to revise any previously held definition of “normal”.

As we look with cautious optimism into this new year, there are some lessons learned in 2020 that will inform the culture of work in 2021 and beyond. Though we can only forecast through the lens of known factors, we anticipate workplaces and leaders of organizations will increase their focus on these 3 DEI topics related to creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces:

  1. Shifting from “Diversity and Inclusion” to “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”
  2. Integrating DEI from “A Thing We Do to How We Do All Things”
  3. Maintaining Dialogues and Actionable Training

1. Continuing Shift from “Diversity and Inclusion” to “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”

Even prior to the summer of 2020, there was a recognition that focusing on diversity, or increasing representation of people from various backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences; is only part of the equation. Inclusion, or making space for and amplifying the voices of everyone in the workplace, equally, is another. Both of these concepts will remain a top focus for organizations in 2021.

Many forward-leaning organizations are also focusing on ‘equity’, which means that employees have equal access to opportunities and the support to succeed and grow, as part of their overall DEI strategy. National protests over racial injustice served as a catalyst for organizations to reflect and act on how biases, stereotypes and gaps in accountability have led to inequities in representation and advancement, particularly for Black employees. This has seeded the ground for individual organizations and coalitions like OneTen to form and create goals to reconcile inequities in the hiring, upskilling and advancement of Black employees. 

While race and ethnicity are at the forefront of the conversation, equity in the workplace can and should manifest in a range of ways that account for the intersection of identities like race, gender identity, age, disability status, remote or in person status and a variety of other factors that inform outcomes. This can range from: creating accountability in decision points that lead to inequity in pay; reviewing the designation into high potential talent development opportunities and succession management processes; or facilitating analyses of employee engagement surveys (that not only disaggregate but combine demographic identities) to understand the nuanced experiences of your workforce.

As goes the title of John Doerr’s book on Objectives and Key Results, organizations will be called to “measure what matters” in the commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Some organizations are considering tying executive compensation to DEI goals and priorities to instill a deeper sense of accountability. The focus on equity in the workplace will be a magnified topic as businesses operate with a deeper level of transparency around compensation reporting, board representation, harassment reporting, advancement, and other talent management practices. 

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2. Integrating DEI from “A Thing We Do to How We Do All Things”

The phrase “DEI isn’t a thing we do, it’s how we do all things” was a mantra that a former colleague and I decided on as we developed a multi-year DEI strategic plan. You can expect that the integration of DEI into all areas of the business – whether that be an organization’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Workplace Culture, Product, Marketing, Employee Wellness strategies, and their stated Values – will be emphasized in 2021.

Company responses to the protests against racial injustice highlighted the need to see the workplace as an internal community and to align internal DEI strategy with external community engagement efforts. What many organizations recognized is that making external commitments to equity won’t suffice if there is evidence that they aren’t also taking care of their employees. This will influence things like equitable mental wellbeing and employee engagement programs, transparency in reporting processes and the assessment of workplace climate.

Connecting DEI to CSR also magnifies the thread between employee and community expectations of an organization to address societal needs. 66% of consumers, as an example, say companies have an obligation to invest in the future workforce by providing educational opportunities. Many DEI strategies focus on the current and future talent pipeline by providing educational and upskill training. More closely coordinating and aligning CSR and DEI priorities (and, in some cases, bringing these business operations together), is a trend you can expect to see even more of in 2021.

Additionally, as the focus on accountability, transparency, and progress on DEI goals continue, you can anticipate a deeper alignment between organizational values and workplace culture to tenets of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And there is good reason – recent research shows a relationship between organizations that have a stated value of diversity and inclusion to increased gender diversity of their boards and senior management.

Lastly, expect that partners will want to see DEI integrated into the programs, products, and services that your organization provides. A recent survey, for  example, shows that education administrators are pushing for education companies to produce instructional materials that depict People of Color, specifically Black people, less stereotypically; while another survey highlighted the focus on racial diversity in senior leadership as a part of the evaluation of a potential vendor.

A continuing trend in 2021 will be the appointment of DEI leaders, though they are often a shop of one or few. To truly move from DEI being a “thing you do” to “how you do all things” and to mitigate against burn out; leaders should plan how to scale and delegate the focus of DEI throughout the organization so that the work becomes the responsibility of many, not just the one.

Providing forums for each employee to recognize their role to create an inclusive and equitable workplace is a key opportunity and the last trend.

3. Continued Dialogues and Actionable Training Experiences 

An interesting trend from 2020 that will influence workplace culture in 2021 is the focus on psychology safety and for workplaces to provide the forum for open conversations about DEI. The need for and designation of spaces for dialogue has long existed in workplaces. It is one of the core components of the CEO Action Pledge for Diversity and Inclusion, and has been a standard part of the employee resource groups experience (also known as ERGs, affinity groups, business resource groups, employee communities, etc.).

The increase in remote work combined with “town hall” and other types of discussions about equity in the workplace had a positive effect on the sense of belonging of employees of color in 2020. The projection for 2021 is that these conversations will move beyond the “safe spaces” of ERGs and become a regular part of organization wide discussions that each employee will engage in.

For these discussions to meet their objective: to engender empathy and respect and cultivate a speak up, ally culture; organizations will need to pair these forums with actionable training that rightfully frames a value of diversity, respect, and inclusion as a necessary and actionable workplace skill. A recent EVERFI survey of HR and DEI professionals ranked “empathy, respect and civility” as the top topic they expect to see in a diversity education training, followed closely by skill based topics like being an ally and disrupting microaggressions.

Empowering the whole organization, not just managers and those in leadership positions, with learning opportunities will support the overarching goal of creating a psychologically safe workplace: one where each person feels able to fully contribute and be vulnerable (e.g. admitting there is something they do not know) without fear of retribution.

In conclusion

While any DEI professional and thought leader may be hesitant to place bets on the leading 2021 trends given the unexpected events of 2020; we can forecast with fair certainty that the focus on equity, a deeper integration of DEI into all business practices and the need for DEI training opportunities will persist throughout the year. These guiding principles will ensure that the “moments” of 2020 evolve into an enduring movement and progress towards equitable, inclusive, and respectful workplaces.

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