Commentary: How the distributed workforce of tomorrow can leave behind the racism of the past

(Diverse City LLC Photo)

We will soon turn the page on a pandemic that has consumed the conversation in boardrooms across America. Along with the rapid adaptation of digital workforces, we have seen another revolution gain momentum in its quest for change. The year brought with it a duality that kept our attention on the pandemic while we watched in disbelief as so many occurrences of racial injustice dominated the headlines.

Dr. Cheryl Ingram is a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist and founder and CEO of Inclusology and Diverse City LLC.

Although COVID-19 may eventually fade from public view, we cannot allow the issue of pervasive racism to do the same. We must continue building awareness about the fundamental conversations needed for the country to heal around racial boundaries. Corporate leaders will play a vital role in that process as we adapt to the technology-driven distributed workforce of tomorrow.

Now is the time to elevate discussions about racism in the workplace. Public opinion is shifting rapidly on the topic, and there is an expectation for brands and leaders to make public statements on where they stand. Professional sports, the fashion industry, big tech, and even food delivery apps have generated viral stories because of their action or hesitance to take a position on racism during the pandemic. C-suite professionals can no longer take a neutral approach on the topic of racism because the conversation is now growing louder within their own workplaces. The good news is that many leaders and brands are beginning to make commitments to better understand the complexity of the issues we face.

Creating the workforce of tomorrow also means building an equitable environment for all people. That dynamic is creating a growing consensus that the days of racism, sexism, ageism, and all forms of discrimination must end. The new distributed structure of digital work has created opportunities for change, but also barriers to progress that must be addressed. Many companies hoped to implement diversity training and strategies to create more inclusive workplaces in the months ahead. When those plans were created, they assumed employees were predominantly based in the same physical locations. Remote work has created barriers to communication, and given rise to more subtle but equally harmful forms of racism and discrimination.

Instances of racism on digital platforms are on the rise, not limited to social media. Most digital workforces now communicate through a mix of messaging, email, and social applications where bias, microaggressions, and even overt racism take place, while the perpetrators launch culture-destroying ideology from behind a keyboard. Marginalized communities have previously found their “safe place” at home and in their digital lives. As the new digital work culture blurs those lines, it is having a detrimental impact. Corporate leaders must consider this challenge as an opportunity to create an all-encompassing approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

It’s not good enough just to hire Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC). Those who have been marginalized need to be mentored, not over-mentored, and be presented with leadership opportunities. Mentors who are willing to support the marginalized must also be willing to check their biases when creating mentor-mentee relationships. Over-mentoring is a prominent problem for BIPOC and women in the workplace as companies are navigating DEI. It shows up when people are creating too many spaces that offer mentees feedback they’ve heard and applied over and over, while their circumstances still do not change.

Exclusive workplaces, like the smoky boardrooms of the bad, old past, should cease to exist. Creators of such powerful spaces must be willing to recognize that having a seat at the table is not enough for marginalized populations; we want to have impact. Creating a more inclusive environment needs to be the new normal.

A Diverse City event before the pandemic. (Diverse City LLC Photo)

What does this look like? You will see a truly diverse workforce with equal numbers of women and BIPOC at all levels of an organization. An HR department will regularly survey employees asking pointed questions about inclusion and equity, discuss the results, and create strategies to address inequities and the problems they create.

Most important, and most difficult: equal pay. According to an Economic Policy Institute report, the wage gap between white and BIPOC employees, especially Black people, is worse now it was 20 years ago. This is across the board, from those with no high school diploma, high-school degrees, college degrees, and advanced degrees. This is unconscionable. White people can keep filling their anti-racist bookshelves, but until BIPOC populations and whites are compensated equally for equal work, we will not be able to achieve true equity in the workplace. This goal is achievable. These decisions are made in boardrooms, and the directors of boards need to commit to an equitable future for all.

Finally, we need to recognize that progress is being made. America is on a journey toward more equitable workplaces. Catalyst events have created more urgency for change. Some brands and leaders have been quick to implement new strategies, while others are still considering their best path forward. We did not get here overnight, and we will not have instant transformation, but doing nothing is no longer an option. Viewing the workforce of tomorrow as an ever-evolving environment with opportunities for consistent improvement is important.

Yes, the road forward for many companies will be challenging as they implement changes. However, the road behind us is filled with bias, discrimination, and injustice for marginalized groups. Leaders who see this reality and understand that their workplace will only truly thrive when it is equitable will create the most successful workplaces of tomorrow.

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