Covid-19: Diversity & Inclusion Are Vital to Business Recovery

Diversity and inclusion are at risk of slipping off the radar at a time of crisis, but are essential for a company’s recovery, resilience, and innovation post Covid-19.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit companies around the world with severe disruption and daunting impacts like the loss of footfall and revenue, liquidity challenges or supply chains in disarray.

With temporally staggered curves across different regions of the world, and first waves nearly seamlessly slipping into a second, some businesses still struggle for mere survival while others work on recovery and hope to re-emerge stronger. From previous crises we have learned that there is a very real risk of diversity and inclusion slipping off the radar in the process.

But while focusing first and foremost on crisis management may appear reasonable at first sight, a crisis we hope to sustainably emerge from is the wrong time to deprioritise diversity and inclusion. Some of what characterises diverse and inclusive companies, such as innovation and resilience, is in very high demand as companies recover from current setbacks. And some of the issues that diversity and inclusion work addresses are closely linked to the ways in which Covid-19 affects a business, its employees as well as its customer base.

Our Decision-making Suffers Under Pressure

Stress, anxiety, fatigue and other forms of pressure negatively affect our decision-making and increase implicit bias.

Implicit bias refers to unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that can affect our understanding, actions, and decisions. Such biases are involuntarily generated assumptions, often rooted in structural inequalities, particularly when based on race or ethnicity, gender identity, social group or religion. They affect how we interact with employees, colleagues and customers on a daily basis and what decisions we make when there is little time to deliberate.

diversity and inclusion covid-19

(Graphic: Adapted from Rawpixel)

Our implicit biases are much more likely to distort our decisions when we’re feeling stress, time constraints or fatigue – all factors in ample supply during this pandemic. Putting a pin in any efforts to raise awareness and curb implicit bias at work until after the pandemic is highly counterproductive, as decisions we make now will impact the course of our recovery and potentially the viability of our business post-crisis.

The Pandemic Deepens Existing Disadvantages

Just like different people experience work, workplaces and management in different ways, different people are affected by this crisis in very different ways.

The most obvious example to illustrate this point may be health and dis/ability. People with chronic illnesses, disabilities and other pre-existing conditions are at a higher risk of more severe illness or death in case of infection. Add to that the effects of lockdowns, social distancing, and job/financial insecurity on mental health, and it becomes clear that safety for staff as well as customers is not one-size-fits-all. While returning to a ‘new normal’ with distancing and hygiene regulations in place may be relatively safe for a majority of staff and consumers, it’s important to keep in mind that this can also further exclude already disadvantaged groups – particularly where the enforcement of these safety measures is haphazard.

diversity and inclusion covid-19

(Graphic: Rawpixel)

But in addition to the nexus between health, disability, mental health and age, other markers of difference make for different experiences of the pandemic too. Existing inequalities and disadvantages are deepened by Covid-19 and the ways in which we manage returning to the workplace.

Covid-19 has, for example, exacerbated anti-Asian racism. Many East Asians (and those read as such) in Western countries experience an increase in racist slurs, harassment, avoidance and other forms of discrimination. And research also shows that women have disproportionally carried the dual burden of working from home while caring for and educating children during school closures, often while other family members also worked from home – among other negative impacts of Covid-19 on gender equality.

These examples are just a glimpse into how the pandemic makes ‘treating everyone the same’ an even less viable tactic to achieve equal opportunities and a discrimination-free workplace.

Diversity & Inclusion are Integral to Recovery from a Crisis

Research amply demonstrates how crucial diversity and inclusion practices are to a company’s success. A recent management study shows that organisations with an inclusive company culture are twice as likely to exceed financial targets, six times more likely to be innovative and agile, and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.

diversity and inclusion covid-19

(Photo: You X Ventures)

And diverse teams are more resilient to crisis than homogeneous ones. That’s because diverse and inclusive workplaces foster more creative and innovative teams that arrive at less biased decisions and produce more viable solutions when problem solving.

Research has demonstrated that companies who maintain their diversity and inclusion efforts in times of crisis bounce back from a recession more successfully than those who let them slip. A 2019 study looked at publicly-traded companies before, during and after the global financial crisis of 2007-2009. It found that companies who maintained a diverse and inclusive environment thrived while those that didn’t faced steep declines. S&P 500 companies over all saw a 35.5% decline in stock performance, while companies that remained highly inclusive experienced a 14.4% gain and outperformed their less inclusive competitors four times.

Whether our motivation stems from doing right by our workforce, from satisfying an ever-more selective consumer base, or ensuring a company’s post Covid-19 recovery – putting diversity and inclusion on the back burner during a crisis is bad judgement!


About the Author:

Nicole Shephard spends a lot of time thinking about how businesses can be more inclusive, both in their workforce and in facing their customers. In her research, writing, and consulting, she combines a critical academic angle with extensive experience from IT and HR roles. Read her other articles here and share your thoughts and questions about diversity in retail in the comments below.

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