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Op-ed: Employers will be failing their workers if they don’t learn these lessons from the pandemic

“We’re all in this together.” This message of solidarity rang throughout the world over the past few months, as communities from Wuhan, China, to Washington, D.C., mobilized to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Heeding shelter-in-place orders, businesses and workers quickly transitioned to remote work in order to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and free up resources for essential workers who remained on the front lines.

This unprecedented effort paid off, and after months of lockdown, communities and companies worldwide are beginning to reopen. As business leaders turn their attention toward an eventual return to the office, however, a critical new need has arisen: the need to ensure an equitable return for all employees.

What is an equitable return? To understand the concept, first we must understand the difference between equity and equality. Equality is an ideal that means treating people equally regardless of their gender, race or socioeconomic status, whereas equity means providing all people with equal access to opportunities given their race, gender or socioeconomic status. For businesses and their employees, therefore, ensuring an equitable return to the office will require near-term and long-term strategies that consider the myriad different viewpoints and life circumstances represented on your teams, to ensure that all workers have equal access and allow them to express their individual experiences and ongoing needs.

In short, an equitable return begins with a deep understanding of the structural inequities that the pandemic has helped bring to light — an understanding that we have not all shared the same experience of the Covid-19 crisis, and that those communities with the fewest resources have often been hit the hardest.

Consider these statistics: As of mid-July, over 570,000 people have died of Covid-19, leaving countless family members and friends behind to grieve. Within the U.S. over 18 million people have lost their jobs, and many now struggle to pay their bills and keep food on their table. Of those still working, essential workers — many of whom are low-income people and/or people of color — have had to remain in their workplace, contributing to Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities.

Your employees could be among these people, or could have friends and family who are. Even if your workforce is fully employed and fully remote, their individual experiences likely vary widely between those who enjoy the peace and flexibility of remote work and those who are grappling with homeschooling children, supporting elder family members, and sleepless nights.

With such a range of perspectives, circumstances, and needs represented on a single team, it is incumbent upon business leaders to ensure that their return-to-work plan serves all demographic groups while maintaining cohesion between on-site and remote workforces.

The challenges that lie ahead

Returning to the office amid a pandemic presents a number of challenges, especially for large, diverse workforces dispersed around the world

Geography itself is one such challenge, both in terms of the severity of the coronavirus’ impact and the timing of its rises and falls. The virus will likely continue to move in waves around the world and remain concentrated in population centers — thus, teams in Asia may be back already, while U.S.-based teams are just beginning to return, and rural teams may come back faster or in greater numbers than urban teams. Furthermore, the reopening of society is already causing spikes in coronavirus cases, which could lead to additional shutdowns later this year. Leaders should therefore consider these nuances in their return-to-office efforts, taking cues from regions that have already opened successfully and including contingency plans for renewed shelter-in-place orders.

Gender and parenthood also present additional challenges, especially while schools and summer camps remain closed. Someone needs to take care of the family, and in dual-income heterosexual households that responsibility tends to fall more heavily on the woman. Meanwhile, studies have shown that companies with above-average gender diversity in leadership positions outperform their peers — in other words, the advancement of women is quite simply good for business. This adds up to an urgent need to embed gender equity practices into the return to the office, so that we don’t lose ground in these changing circumstances.

Finally, race and socioeconomic class must be major considerations of any equitable return plan. If the impact of Covid-19 on low-income and minority communities weren’t proof enough, the global resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement stands as a powerful demonstration of how structural racism and inequality still pervade throughout our societies and our workforces. We urge business leaders to keep these injustices foremost in your minds, and to provide employees with a safe space to discuss current events, have uncomfortable dialogues, and actively practice anti-racism. Now is the time to listen, learn and help drive long-term progress.

Putting people first

With these and many other considerations in mind, leaders must then develop return-to-office plans that prioritize equity and are resilient enough to handle whatever new pandemic-related challenges are to come.

Though no single solution will work for all workforces — or even all employees — the most effective will rest on a few core tenets: acknowledging divisions, building support networks, and leading with humanity. These solutions will be flexible enough to let employees choose their path forward, yet firm enough for all employees to know where they fit in and how they can keep working together. Companies that embrace a people-first approach — such as Ally Financial, which has expanded its childcare support, offered its employees access to free mental health resources, and delivered financial assistance payments to many employees — will be the best positioned to thrive in the new normal.

What does a people-first approach entail? Here are some ideas.

Focus on your employees. Your company’s top priority should be to keep your employees safe, healthy, and productive no matter where they are working from. Plan for long-term remote work and build backwards from the home, seeking out the best tools to facilitate working from home and striving to accommodate all the difficulties that come with it—from children and pets to physical and mental health issues. When the time comes to return to the office, take a health-first approach—making decisions based on data, not dates. This can present challenges as timelines shift, but is critical to supporting employee well-being.

Begin with the work. Focus on your company and team’s mission and goals and build your culture around that, making every decision with your purpose in mind. Encourage your team not to judge their colleagues for their choices, but instead to work together to figure out how to achieve company goals in shifting circumstances.

Lead by example. Establish your own management routine and get on top of your work goals, demonstrating to your employees how to be productive and growth-oriented in a new environment. This dynamic time presents a unique opportunity to drive deep, holistic impact across your company and stakeholders, so think big and plan as far ahead as you can while remaining open to further changes. It is also important to consider your own work/life balance, however, so make sure to create space for yourself and call on colleagues to support you when you need it. After all, if you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others.

Check your biases. It used to be a common belief that people working from home were not as productive or did not work as hard as their in-office counterparts. That has proven to not be the case — during the pandemic, most U.S. remote workers have reported feeling as productive or more productive at home as they are at work. Moving forward, leaders must get comfortable with the idea of “remote work as real work” and create structure to ensure that everyone is treated as part of the team, whether in the office or elsewhere.

Don’t pretend you know what you don’t. This pandemic is only months old, and no one has all the answers right now. Now is the time to ask your whole company — not just the executive leadership — how they feel and what solutions they can engineer. The team will value a vulnerable, human leader. As this great experiment stretches on, give your team the opportunity to speak up about what is and isn’t working and and test different solutions to determine the best fit. Don’t be afraid to get things wrong along the way these are all valuable lessons to learn.

The Covid-19 crisis is far from over — even when the headlines fade, many of your team members will be impacted for years to come. As their circumstances and relationships change, successful leaders will remain connected to them and empower them to continually choose what approach to work is best for them.

As many have noted, the pandemic has only accelerated a trend toward remote work that has been building for years. Whatever “new normal” we come to after it ends is therefore unlikely to resemble the working world we knew before and may lead to new challenges, such as maintaining cohesion and camaraderie between remote and in-office workers.

With the future of work suddenly upon us, now is the time for business leaders to establish a new mindset that will guide you and your teams through whatever changes are yet to come. Providing for an equitable return to the office could be the perfect place to start.

Vanessa Colella is a member of CNBC’s Technology Executive Council — a premier group of technology executives assembled exclusively by CNBC. To learn more about council membership, visit cnbccouncils.com

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