Twitter's response to COVID-19 has made headlines in recent weeks, for being among the first companies to transition to a fully remote working model, then for announcing that its employees could work from home forever. And in its latest Inclusion & Diversity report, the social media platform focused on how it is combating racism and discrimination arising from the pandemic.
People Matters asked Preet Grewal, Head of Inclusion & Diversity at Twitter JAPAC, for her thoughts on how COVID-19 and the shift to remote work is affecting I&D now and moving forward. Here's what she shared.
The downside: traditional forms of I&D engagement are off the table
Travel restrictions and social distancing requirements around the world have made it impossible to bring people together physically, and at least in Twitter's case, this has hurt I&D programs that depend on in-person gatherings.
"Some direct impact of the restrictions has been on travel, on participation at events, or hosting any live internal events – which are often how companies engage employees around I&D," Preet told People Matters. "I&D conversations and training that are at times best suited for small in-person intimate groups are no longer possible."
The upside: negative preconceptions are blown out of the water
Despite the isolation and disengagement that some people experience when working remotely, there is a "strong feeling of solidarity in this disconnect", Preet said. "People are opening up their private, personal space to work teams like never before, which to some extent positively impacts employee engagement and team bonding."
More importantly, she pointed out, now that everyone is working from home, the negative preconceptions surrounding such flexibility have been challenged or outright proved wrong. This benefits employees who might have been denied it in the past due to such assumptions about their commitment: working mothers, part-timers, or those with disabilities who may find it challenging to work within a face-time culture.
Mental health and well-being has also taken a more prominent place, with leaders acknowledging its importance and taking more time to check in on employees.
"So overall, even though the logistics of I&D are impacted, the very essence of supporting unique individual needs during these times is heightened; enabling equity and inclusion in the workplace," she said.
It's possible to incorporate inclusiveness into your crisis response
There is a difference between being physically ready to transit to a virtual, distributed workforce, and being psychologically ready, as Preet pointed out. Twitter's policy around inclusiveness involves the use of business resource groups—spaces created on Twitter's own platform for individuals and allies in diverse communities to come together—and these became part of the support networks to help Twitter employees get through COVID-19. For example, she shared, one of the groups which the I&D team engaged to shape the company's internal response was @TwitterAsians, which played a highly visible role in helping to deal with misinformation and racism.
"These groups were able to quickly escalate potential community impact, given the discrimination we were seeing the pandemic brought along with it," Preet said.
Other spaces created for parents or for people of different faiths became a way to hear and respond to the needs of the different groups, including providing information to help them with the challenges they face and gathering feedback on policies and initiatives so that the company could prioritize what was most important to employees and fix what wasn't working. In addition, Twitter also began hosting sessions focusing specifically on under-represented communities and the unique challenges they face during COVID-19, including the disabled community.
Going forward, we need to think harder about protecting the vulnerable
The sheer extent of the COVID-19 crisis is a step-up call for not only individual companies but society at large, Preet believes. "Data from across the globe shows how the most vulnerable amongst us are impacted the worst," she pointed out. "A lot of change in thinking of how we work is definitely expected."
She brought up one all too common example today, that of a working parent trying to juggle their work responsibilities and their child's home schooling. "How did the company support them?" she asked. "Did the focus of who is leaning in more at home change?"
Perhaps, she suggested, organizations that were previously conservative, if not outright suspicious, about working from home will now experience a shift in their mindset, not only for their existing employees but for potential hires. "Perhaps on hiring from talent pools that were previously excluded?"
On the bright side, COVID-19 has also shown the value of empathetic leadership that offers inclusiveness.
"Some of the companies who responded best to the crisis will be those who have shown authentic and empathetic leaders who truly cared about their employees during these times," Preet said.
And, she believes, authenticity will continue to be very important in the days to come—meaning that I&D will be equally important, because the two enable each other. "Economic downturn, job losses, personal grief, missing professional targets, fear of what’s coming next—these are all really hard topics to talk about. Leaders have to be open and honest and authentic, and to be able to thrive in the changed workplace of the future, companies will need to keep up I&D as a priority."