Published: June 1, 2020 By

Mass protests and a pandemic are swirling together to making 2020 one of the most difficult times to focus on work in modern history. Business leaders can help, and there are some often underappreciated tools they could be utilizing to help their teams thrive through the tough days ahead: diversity and inclusion.

Stefanie K. Johnson, an associate professor at the Leeds School of Business at CU Boulder, is an expert on leadership and diversity. Her new book, Inclusify, shows how leaders can build innovative teams through diversity. She says that process can yield major benefits for teams during normal times. During the current era of COVID-19 and civil unrest, it’s critical.

Though her book was written and its launch planned prior to the George Floyd protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson offered some tips to help businesses navigate the diversity issues they present.

Meet with the team

Employees will be dealing with varying emotions—and even trauma—following the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.

Virtual book launch

Stefanie Johnson will host a virtual book launch, featuring thought leaders and chief diversity officers from MetLife and Brown-Forman at 5 p.m. MT, June 2, 2020.

Watch on YouTube

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Johnson advised managers confront the underlying issues head-on, using Floyd and Arbery’s names in the conversation.

“Ask team members to talk about how they’re feeling, or give them time off of work to deal with the pain that they are experiencing,” said Johnson.

Ignoring the deaths and subsequent protests will signal indifference, according to Johnson, potentially compounding issues that could escalate team conflict.

“Even if you start with ‘I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how you feel,’ The most important thing is to say something,” Johnson said.

It’s all right that managers don’t have all of the answers. Listening and showing support is a critical step.

“You don’t need to pretend that you know how your colleagues of color are feeling,” she said. “You just need to show that this matters. George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery matter.”

Making the most out of remote work

As business leaders also cope with a global pandemic’s impacts on business, from tight budgets to combatting Zoom fatigue, diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be overlooked.

“The COVID-19 outbreak has important implications for diversity and inclusion outcomes as it is likely to disproportionately affect some groups such as parents, women, persons with disabilities,” said Johnson. “Luckily, there are things leaders can do to build inclusion in a remote workplace.” 

To get the most out of their workers at any time, Johnson advises, managers need to make people feel like they’re part of the team. To do that, according to Johnson, leaders need to address something everyone wants: making them feel unique and that they belong.

A headshot of Stefanie K. Johnson.

Stefanie K. Johnson, author of "Inclusify." (CU Boulder)

“People are much more likely to feel a lack of uniqueness and belonging while working remotely. When you are not seen as unique, you feel incomplete,” Johnson said.

To help workers feel fulfilled, connection can go a long way.

“My research shows each employee should spend four hours a week in face-to-face, albeit virtual, interactions with their team,” said Johnson.

She recommends that supervisors have frequent individual chats with their team members. In those conversations, leaders should be sure to demonstrate empathy. 

Supervisors should also make a point to learn about the challenges and successes their workers are encountering. And they should reinforce their trust in the employees to do assigned work in their own unique ways.

In group meetings, Johnson recommended, leaders should make a special effort to hear all voices.

“Imagine that someone in that room, or chatroom, has all of the answers you are looking for. You don’t know who it is, but your job is to bring it out,” she said. “Listen to everyone very carefully, because they might have the answer, and you want to learn it.”

In divvying up team tasks, Johnson said managers need to ensure they’re doing it fairly because of the human tendency to make biased decisions under stress, such as relying on some team members more while possibly ignoring others.

And every now and again, managers should find inclusive ways to cut loose. Johnson suggested coffee hours—in addition to happy hours—to include those who don’t drink. 

“Talk about all of the fun things you want to do as a team when the world gets back to normal.”f

Increasing diversity when returning to work

As states relax COVID-19 restrictions, some workers will return to the office, which creates a great opportunity to build a more inclusive workplace “if you know what to do,” she said. 

One silver lining of work-from-home guidelines is that they’ve allowed workers to bring their true selves to work. An integrated work day has included spending time with children and spouses or taking the dog for a walk amid the tasks of the day. Johnson has heard from managers stunned to learn about their workers’ daily realities for the first time.

Embracing that new awareness of employees’ lives in the return to work can encourage people to do their best work during a difficult transition.

“Continue allowing flexibility—without stigma—for employees,” said Johnson. “Recognize that we might be more prone to in-group bias, and therefore it’s important to intentionally create diverse groups of employees when they are re-entering the office.”

Johnson said business leaders can also utilize diversity to better innovate through challenging economic times ahead. To do so, they need to keep voicing support for diversity initiatives. It might even be a good time to stand up new efforts.

“Create a task force of diverse team members to come up with strategies to build inclusion, and encourage everyone to participate in the efforts so you are bringing new people into the diversity and inclusion conversation who have not been there before.”