Fear is inevitable during a crisis. It brings out the worst in people, fanning the flames of discrimination and exclusion, and creating conflict in communities that are already tense and afraid. In a time when we should be working together to fight the spread of disease and return to normalcy, misinformed suspicions are driving us apart.
In hotspots across the country, those suspicions are flaring up into outright exclusion. Politicians and notable public figures have taken to calling the coronavirus “the Chinese virus” in opposition to the World Health Organization’s naming conventions and inadvertently causing problems in our communities. Some businesses have suffered as a result; in San Francisco, roughly 70% of Chinese restaurants have seen a dramatic decline in traffic. In my home of New York, the city’s largest and oldest Chinese restaurant, Jing Fong, was forced to close down after experiencing an “unsustainable loss of business.”
The spread of misinformation and misplaced fear is incredibly damaging — not only for restaurants but for all businesses. If that fearful mindset seeps into our business cultures, we could see bias and distrust grow like mold across our organizations, slowly breaking down the communication and achievement gains that true diversity brings to a business.
As Forbes writer, Sonia Thompson put the matter, “As the world battles…COVID-19, we have to be vigilant when it comes to fighting for inclusivity and making others feel like they belong. Now, it is more important than ever to hold true, reiterate, and reinforce your values in this regard as a brand and a company. Otherwise, we risk damaging or unraveling progress that’s been made in the important work of bringing people with different backgrounds and experiences together.”
The coronavirus pandemic is a challenge to diversity, but it also stands as an opportunity for businesses to reinforce their dedication to the cause and expand their diversity efforts even further. Below, I’ve included a few suggestions on how leaders can not only survive, but thrive, in these trying times.
Restate Your Values and Reassure Your Employees
Your first strategy should be to reassert the values and priorities that you already hold. Develop a company-wide document that reiterates your organization’s values and the steps that you are actively taking to ensure a smooth and safe transition to remote work. Several colleges have put together such documents for their campuses that outline policies around exclusive speech, what to do when remedying unequal access to technology, tactics for completing responsibilities remotely, and communication best practices.
The University of California has a particularly well-developed protocol, which can be found here. These examples almost certainly won’t apply word-for-word to business needs, but they can provide inspiration and direction for creating business documentation.
It may also be beneficial to provide employees with the resources they need to understand the COVID-19 crisis and avoid any problematic misunderstandings. Direct employees towards factual reports about the crisis and encourage open dialogue between team members and management to remove any lingering, anxiety-inducing uncertainty.
Consider the Diversity Benefits of Expanding Remote Work
Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to trial the expansion of our remote work policies. Faced with the office-closing prospect of COVID-19, businesses that had previously dragged their feet on exploring remote options are now forced to adopt them temporarily. The question is — will they retain an openness to remote work when the crisis ends?
Remote work is an invaluable lever for boosting diversity. It opens up opportunities to talented professionals who have disabilities that make leaving the house difficult; it makes balancing career and family responsibilities far easier for working parents. Significantly, remote work also allows employers to access talent from all over the world and removes the limits posed by geographical boundaries and relocation costs.
As a journalist for NPR explains, “Many of the most successful and desirable employers are based in expensive cities on the coasts. Not everyone wants to move to those cities, nor can many people afford to. More and more, smart, dedicated people are choosing to stay close to their families. Some have sick or elderly relatives to care for. Others simply prefer the towns and cities where they grew up.”
To be fair, remote work makes more sense in some industries and businesses than others. But if you can effectively incorporate remote work options into your business, you have an opportunity to expand your access to top talent, improve company diversity, and provide flexibility to employees.
Check-in With Your Team to Provide Support
As teams shift towards remote work, pre-existing tensions will naturally become more pronounced and problematic. Ample research demonstrates that women, for example, are often interrupted and feel as though their voices are less valued in conversations than those of their male (majority) peers. One study published by Pew Research found that 25 percent of surveyed women felt as though they had to continually “prove themselves” to maintain their colleagues’ respect. In a physical office, managers can counteract these skewed conversations by moderating meetings and making a point to welcome all perspectives.
In a digital setting, offering that support can be somewhat more challenging. Business leaders will need to direct managers to be even more proactive in encouraging fair online discussion and providing support to team members who might feel stifled.
A crisis is a challenge, yes — but it also stands as a period of opportunity. With a little effort, businesses can emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with stronger values, improved diversity, and increased team unity.