As a search consultant, leadership advisor, and diversity leader, the question that’s been lingering on my mind this last month has been: what’s going to happen to the diversity & inclusion (D&I) focus post-Covid? In India we are barely 1.5 generations old in D&I, and we have a shorter history to fall back on.

I ask this for three reasons. First, our economic climate has changed dramatically with the re-drawing of basic tenets and global economic indicators. Second, companies are cutting back and concerns on managing costs and performance seems paramount. Focus is razor sharp, almost blinkered, maybe for good reason. It is also largely true that much of the robust push around diversity & inclusion is driven from global headquarters of companies which is then matched by the sheer scale, implementation framework and belief in India. Global firms may or not push that charter that strongly here and that could create a ripple effect. Third, I know D&I is even more necessary going forward, despite our sometimes ungraceful but understandable scrambling in the current economic situation. The world order as we know it, has crumbled and it is only innovation and agility that is going to define our future growth – and both these are possible only through strongly diverse and inclusive teams working together. By skipping this important step, we may skip a critical success factor. We could actually cease to be relevant or responsive. With only clones and echoes of ourselves at work, we could fail.

The complete erosion of the world as we know it from global, social, economic and cultural perspective is leaving most of us uncertain as to what tomorrow’s corporate structure will be, what the drivers are, and where we as individuals will fit in. The earlier shrug of ‘c’mon, it’s not life or death’ has suddenly ceased to be a catch phrase and companies are seeing intangibles like family, ill health, cost of care and even death as part of their company canvas – as well as their excel sheets. It is life and death. The aggressive push towards only profitability with shareholders calling the shots will have to change as will the essence of true ‘capitalism’. The current engaged world has a larger vision and multiple goals. Interconnectedness is now par for the course, whether we work through, around or beyond it.

I am not conforming to a traditional perspective that diversity is a luxury or ‘nice to have’ that companies seek during good times, as I believe that it is a necessity for overall top performance and effectiveness. However decision making on this will be resolved in the hands of very few: the CEOs and the HR leaders, and the drivers and focus could understandably be driven more by the reptilian brain at the present. We can’t blame ourselves. We reassure ourselves that it is part of a fight or flight syndrome, it is about survival of the fittest. It is about meeting payroll, about staying afloat. However, this is also the time that the best leaders will consciously retain the layer that made them successful companies in the first place, and it is this leadership rigour that could ensure a bounce back. The world is listening hard, and any signs of a slack could set off ripples across other companies, the society, and also the employee base.

Once again, I am not suggesting that they will be shifts, withdrawals or going back on diversity objectives or even companies’ vision on this. I am merely suggesting that this will be a vulnerable space and we should be aware. It is therefore more important for decision makers in the space as well as concerned stakeholders to connect and have a dialogue on what needs to be done so that the diversity orientation that has been built up so painstakingly into muscle memory over the last few decades is not derailed by however cataclysmic a phenomenon like Covid. Stakeholders are companies, governments, consultants, the society at large, and employees.

We have covered the corporations role, caught in the middle of a tug of war between shareholders and employees. Needless to say the government will have a very strong role in defining and directing organisations to be mindful of inclusivity in the post-Covid business scenario. As a society, we need to look at it as a discipline and an orientation, a way of life that we should not lose touch with while we pick ourselves up to keep running. Family structures too may change, and health and quality of life will see a shift in the employee profile, engagement and way of working.

Even with the physical work environment, however inclusive, one that we took for granted earlier, there had been issues of being tone-deaf to nuances, outcomes and to each other. The virtual spaces we have now floated into and the gaping lack of physical connectedness may actually cause a spiral with ‘othering’ and ‘labelling’ creeping out of our new cocoons. It’s a worry, and something that Human Resources must be cognisant of.

Much will be defined by companies who stay true to the purpose of their vision and focus even in these difficult times. Respect for the credo of inclusion is something that will be a hallmark of a company with integrity, empathy and intuition post 2020. Perhaps one will be forgiven for letting D&I lag a little by the wayside while one picks up threads of business as usual, but that lack will remain strong derailment to all plans going forward, and will be remembered as such.

Creative solutions and encouragement will not only motivate and remind but also serve as a beacon to many of us who may temporarily lose their way. It’s a hard time for us all, but also a time that we should choose to remember and implement all the lessons we have learnt, the muscle memory that we have built up.

And we will get through this.

Views are personal.

The author is managing partner, Multiversal Advisory

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