Real change may be aided by good intentions, but good intensions are not enough. We work with and survey top executives in American business and see up close how big a barrier to change seemingly mundane facts about the workplace can be. Even essential goals, such as increasing diversity, and creating fair and equitable work environments can get undermined by distraction, multitasking and the very human tendency to slip back into more familiar and, comfortable for some, patterns. Bigger business strategies create distractions to meaningful change, too and point to how change can happen. Take the changes wrought by decades of corporate mergers and acquisitions. So much attention and energy are put into combining enterprises that other changes, such as the drive toward diversity and inclusion moves down the big to-do list. But the recombination of business certainly drives big change, just that it is simply the kind demanded to push businesses together. Ironically, the biggest changes businesses have experienced outside of wartime, namely those wrought by the pandemic—especially working remotely online—may offer a path to better focus and communication as we march ahead toward inclusion and equity and against racism, explicit and implied.
In light of today’s social unrest, it is evident that meaningful and sustainable change must take place across our landscape, and each of us must do our part in bringing significant change to our small corner of the world. We must take steps to address deeply-engrained biases, let go of long-held assumptions and expectations about how things should or should not be. We must become psychologically flexible enough to try new ways of thinking and behaving; we must be courageous enough to begin moving forward—one step at a time—trying, learning, developing and adjusting to new ways of communicating, interacting and managing disagreement and conflict.
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, work is now more likely to take place in a home office than at a corporate office. Regardless of the location, much of the change we expect individuals will experience over the coming weeks and months will undoubtedly occur while at work. With that in mind, we recently conducted a study of 128 CEOs, Presidents, COOs, and senior-level executives spanning 50 industries with many in the Chicagoland area having national and global reach. We conducted interviews of a select group of executives and then followed-up with a survey to the larger group.
We learned that the COVID-19 crisis and the shift to working from home has led to deep—and surprisingly positive—adaptations to management policies, practices and priorities that can change how we relate to one another. Strangely, the forced isolation under the shadow of COVID-19 has helped set the stage for more open communication, frank and honest dialogue and a kind of transparency not previously seen in organizaitons. Managers told us that they see their colleagues working more productively which in addition to the shift in transparency has led to higher level of mutual respect.
These changes can also impact social and racial injustice. Here’s why.
Communication during the COVID-19 crisis has been more open and inclusive than before. Communication in the past often involved surprisingly few people and important discussions at work were often impromptu and improvised. These ad hoc meetings have been replaced by communications that are much more intentional.
Meetings from home offices require advance planning and must be well thought-out in terms of their purpose and who attends. It’s important to consider how someone's absence might diminish their understanding and damage their buy-in. Perhaps most importantly, the infamous “meeting before the meeting” or “the ‘informal discussion when decisions are ‘actually made’ meeting”) may finally be a thing of the past. And so, may be much of the backbiting, innuendo, and subtle discrimination that happens at such informal and exclusionary meetings.
What’s more, this kind of heightened and inclusive communication may be here to stay. Lisa Strasman, President and COO, NCSA Next College Student Athlete, is one of many who sees the powerful change happening. She has found that since employees have learned to stay engaged and be productive from home, they are less anxious to get back to a traditional office. Lisa reports that “the initial desire expressed by many to quickly return to their office is now tapering off, after employees have successfully shown they can maintain productivity from home.” Strasman and her fellow leaders, too, are receptive to employees working from home in the future. Forty-nine percent of the organizations we studied report that they do not plan to have their full workforce return to the office once shelter-in-place is no longer medically necessary.
In terms of accountability, senior leadership is always “at the tip of the spear” when it comes to preparing for, leading through and following up on a crisis. On this front, the COVID-19 crisis has reminded leaders of the importance of these five initiatives:
Establishing and reinforcing trusting relationships with others based on frequent, authentic, genuine conversations. Transparency is now much broader than simply sharing monthly financials with individuals outside of the Board room.
Having policies and procedures in place to reduce ambiguity and uncertainty about what’s right, proper, and suitable and reinforce appropriate and consistent behavior.
Maintaining a culture that makes it easy for employees to do the right thing for the right reason without fear of reprisal or retribution.
Ensuring employees possess the knowledge, skills, and abilities to make “good” value-driven decisions.
Reinforcing to all employees—regardless of their title, role, position, or area of responsibility—the importance of acting in a fair and just (as in unbiased and unprejudiced) manner.
The COVID-19 crisis has contributed directly to the current calls for social justice. Self-quarantining and sheltering-in-place created feelings of aloneness, isolation and a sense of hopelessness that sparked the emotional response as social and racial injustice played out across social media. The psychological and emotional “flexibility” caused by COVID-19 coupled with the benefits of the crisis outlined above will not only improve work-life but will set the stage for us to work together to mitigate social and racial injustice outside of the work setting.
Interestingly, our study reinforced the fundamental business tenet that corporate leaders do not focus solely on their organizations; they also focus on their clients and customers. As Angie Sebastian-Hickey, CEO, Levenfeld Pearlstein, LLC, reported: “We will not let the crisis overtake the client experience. Our response is based on what we hear from our clients. Their pulse informs our action.” Our study revealed that many corporate leaders are broadening their perspective to determine if—or to what extent—the COVID-19 crisis might alter their relationships and agreements with partners, e.g., community councils, governments and investment representatives.
This broadened perspective serves as the basis for the following call-to-action.
To the “titans” of corporate America:
(1) How will you and your organizations leverage the COVID-related improvements in communication, transparency and accountability reported above to impact the greater good?
(2) What will you and your companies do to assure your employees of your personal commitment to social justice?
Of course, these leadership tactics impact only those who are working at an organization where employees have the opportunity to participate and benefit from sustainable changes in diversity, inclusion and equity. Those without jobs and those not in corporate roles will need additional support to save them from distraction and sideline politicking. To help those in greater need begs a third call-to-action from corporate leadership:
(3) Are you willing to lobby the government to adopt new legislation and raise the funds needed to equitably provide affordable housing, education, career training and the other “privileges” the victims of social and racial injustice have been denied?
B. Keith (“B.K.”) Simerson, Ed.D. is consultant, advisor, and author and Cathy Lieberman, ACC is a consultant, advisor, and executive coach. Both reside in Chicago, IL.