Six Ways to Cultivate Diverse Workplaces

This article was written by Diane Johnson Flynn, HBS ’88, and re-published here with her permission.

The pandemic and work-from-home mandate have uncovered the lopsided care burden carried by many women. Acting as the safety net for both visible and invisible domestic work, women are handling the dominant share of caregiving and home duties. It’s no wonder that over 14% of women have recently considered leaving the workforce.

This is of concern because workplaces benefit from greater diversity. Studies show that varied perspectives result in greater innovation and sharper decision-making, which in turn leads to stronger bottom-line performance. The same research recognizes women’s role in attaining these advantages. As organizations begin to navigate their re-openings, with some employees working from home permanently and others planning for a new hybrid home/office approach, how can they position themselves to reap the advantages that diversity offers?

While the focus of our work and our book, The UpsideBetter Outcomes When Everyone Plays, is on improving gender equity, the following suggested actions support all underrepresented groups. These six recommendations have broad applicability for supporting diverse workplaces:

  1. Recommit to critical diversity initiatives for hiring and promotions. New work-from-home policies and flexible work arrangements allow for broader access to talent. Ensure that your hiring and advancement policies support diversity by requiring diverse slates of candidates and interviewer panels, using a structured interview methodology, and establishing the use of a common performance evaluation framework. Watch for evidence of unconscious bias and address it as needed. With unemployment at a record high, there is a wealth of diverse talent to access.
  2. Be open-minded and creative about flexible work options. As offices begin opening up, many companies will turn to flexible work options to reduce density in workspaces and accommodate those with public commutes. Some positions may become remote positions permanently; others may be a combination of in-office and work from home. Consider ways to access broader talent pools through creative programs like returnships (targeting those who’ve taken a career break) and job shares (with two individuals working part-time and sharing one role.) For decades women have requested this type of flexibility. In the majority of cases and staunchly right up until the pandemic’s sheltering restrictions, flexible work arrangements were denied because management believed workers couldn’t be productive or trusted. Now corporate leaders, managers, women, and men are all seeing new possibilities for better engagement, productivity, cost savings, and work-life integration.
  3. Develop clarity around expected deliverables and results rather than in-office face-time. Working from home requires trust. Those who cultivate authentic, open and trusting cultures will find success with flexible work arrangements. Deriving the increased innovation and productivity from diverse, distributed workers requires careful attention to accountability, measurements, and respect for the boundaries set by employees working from home. With proper boundaries (and the resumption of activities for at-home children,) studies show improved employee engagement and loyalty resulting from flexible work arrangements.
  4. Consider the long-term implications of supports for underrepresented groups and invest in the right ones. Some companies are taking actions to support women with additional time off and relaxed duties, acknowledging that mothers are bearing this extra burden at home. While we applaud their demonstration of empathy, we are concerned about the ‘mommy track’ effect (similar to that which resulted from maternity leave before ‘family leave’ was introduced.) Leaders must be thoughtful in anticipating unintended consequences that their supportive actions may have on all employees. With that said, it is important for companies to continue to invest in supports for underrepresented employees, whether in the form of employee resource groups (ERG’s) or through mentorship and coaching programs with the goal of advancement.
  5. Pay attention to the “S” in ESG, staying close to each worker’s physical, emotional, and psychological needs and accommodating when necessary. Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, was lauded for his leadership while laying off 25% of his workforce — largely because he displayed great empathy and humanity, even tearing up during his announcement. Empathy is key to strong leadership — now more than ever. This time and care will pay off in terms of retention and recruiting, saving money in the long-run. Employees don’t forget how they were treated when the chips were down.
  6. Keep track of diversity metrics, recognizing that long-term winners will continue to build diverse workplaces. We suggest a “SMART” approach, measuring Seats on board held by underrepresented groups, percent in Management, percent of All employees, percent Reporting to the CEO, and Turnover rates by each of the groups you track.

Progressive companies recognize that despite the short-term issues that are challenging gender equity in the workplace, they can rethink and create a post-pandemic workplace that unleashes the power of divergent thoughts and approaches.

Diane Flynn and Patty White have recently released their book The Upsidehighlighting the business case for gender diversity and specific actions every stakeholder can take. They consult with Fortune 500 companies to help build workforces where women thrive. Their company, ReBoot Accel, empowers women to achieve career success and personal fulfillment.