Diversity and inclusion become more important than ever during a pandemic

By Mervin Munsamy, Head of Human Resources at ABB South Africa

Covid-19 has shone a sharp spotlight on diversity and inclusion (D&I) in our organisations. The pandemic has had a harder impact on many diverse groups, including women, working parents and LGBTQ+ employees, with magnified challenges around caring for family and working.

As we ponder what our future world of work will look like, there’s never been a better time for us to make our D&I initiatives even more inclusive, by encouraging dialogue across all hierarchical levels and enabling creativity and innovation.

What does diversity and inclusion really mean? This question has taken on added significance as we navigate the pandemic. As our people have had to adapt to a world where remote and hybrid working becomes the norm, company values and culture have never been more important.

A strongly inclusive culture starts when a business creates an environment in which everyone can flourish, thrive and be themselves. Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) are not just “the right thing to do”; it lays the foundation for innovation and better decision-making across the business, by allowing all voices to be heard, ensuring everyone feels valued, while linking that value to the success of the organisation.

It is vital that any D&I approach looks to embed priorities like the health, wellbeing and resilience of a workforce into an enterprise’s people strategy, as these variables will have a significant influence on future performance and success. Supplier diversity is another important topic, especially in a country like South Africa, as it talks directly to how we are influencing positive change in our communities.

None of this happens by itself, though. A business can’t expect to simply make policies and establish Codes of Conduct and expect change to take place. Leadership, not just at a strategic level, but at all hierarchical levels is required for sustainable change to take place. Moreover, systems and structures must be put in place to ensure D&I is embedded in all processes and becomes a standard part of the business agenda. It must be supported by ongoing training and development programs, mentoring programs and appropriate learning interventions. It has to be modelled by the leadership and lived through the company’s values.

Measurement becomes a critical success factor, as the adage goes, “what gets measured, gets done”. As a business, it is vital to hold yourself accountable, and establish a dashboard to monitor your KPIs regularly.

What’s absolutely critical to the success of D&I is that it aligns to broader business issues like sustainability, which are top of mind for many business leaders. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are broadly seen as the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future – and it’s no surprise that goal number five is gender equality. It’s a natural link.

A big part of diversity will always focus on gender. My company’s Global D&I Strategy 2030 aims to double the percentage of women managers across our offices in the next ten years, from 12.5% to 25%. That’s just one target, though. True inclusion and equality span across all areas of diversity, which include, for example, gender, abilities, generational, hierarchical level, ethnicity, LGBTQ+, and so on.

As part of our efforts to foster a more diverse and inclusive culture, ABB launched a gender-neutral global parental leave programme that grants 12 weeks of paid leave for primary caregivers and 4 weeks for secondary caregivers. The new programme aims to give every parent an opportunity to spend more time with their adopted children or new-borns, and balance career and family responsibilities.

So how are we adapting to the new world of work brought on by the pandemic? For a start, company values and culture have become more important than ever. They’re the glue that bind our people together, especially during volatile times. We are seeing more empathy, transparency and communication than ever before in our workforce, and this is positive for everyone.

Ultimately, truly diverse and inclusive organisations will be businesses where diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity in the workplace, marketplace and community are a natural way of doing business, with no overt regulation or policy needed to enforce it. We are still some way off that, but it’s a work in progress.

Diversity and inclusion are a continuous journey, and we learn something new every day. But it is a journey we cannot afford to stop – not even for a moment. Our futures as people and as businesses depend on it.