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2020 threw plenty of curveballs at organizations and DEI teams. COVID-19 created new and urgent people needs while putting many companies on rocky economic grounds. And the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement meant people wanted to have difficult conversations, but didn’t know where to begin. We wanted to know how the most impactful DEI leaders tackled each challenge, so we sat down with DEI experts at the helm of some of the world’s largest and most influential organizations. Then we distilled their insights. This is a snippet of the full pulse report, State of DEI 2020-2021, available online and as a PDF.

PS – If you don’t have time to read it now, you can also sign up for our newsletter and we’ll deliver the report straight to your inbox in bite-sized chunks over the course of the next week.

As workers were moved out of offices and factory floors, organizations were forced to move their operations online. It was an abrupt change that some were ready to make, while others weren’t.

Even as people are given the option to return to physical workplaces, we know that attitudes to remote working have changed. A 2020 survey found that 86% of people believe that remote working is the future of work.

As they ventured into the world of doing everything online, the question to those new to this mode of delivery was: can DEI be done digitally?

Every DEI leader we spoke to made resources accessible to employees from a distance. They introduced video calls, some uploaded content onto cloud-based services, others invested in tools like intranet solutions and some invested in peer learning solutions.

One person confided in us about how they had been skeptical about the efficacy of a remote and digital approach to DEI. But once they spoke to colleagues about the new format and saw the NPS scores, it became clear that it was working as well — if not better — than before.

Many of our experts reported similar levels of success. People generally adapted well, likely helped by the fact that the smartphones and gadgets we carry around in our pockets have made so many of us fluent in technology.

The majority of our contributors said that taking DEI online meant huge financial savings. Because of pandemic restrictions, organizations were seeing how they could bring employees together to collaborate without the usual travel and event planning costs.

Not only did it save money, a crucial element of operations during COVID-19, but a digital approach meant DEI teams were saving time by cutting out the traditional demands of in-person events.

Going digital had instant payoffs. It allowed organizations to reach unprecedented numbers of employees. People were able to tune into talks and webinars from front-row seats in their homes instead of struggling to catch information from the back of a conference room.

This complemented the immediate need to gather colleagues to discuss the events surrounding 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement.

Video recordings gave people the flexibility to consume information when and how it suited them — an inclusion win for the likes of parents and carers. We also heard how it opened up the conversation to those who had potentially been excluded by an in-person-first culture that favored extroverts.

Events that would have been held in headquarters or as single events in a major city were now accessible to all regional team members. Our leaders told us how people were connecting with those they hadn’t been in the habit of doing so before.

A digital-first approach also allows for asynchronous work and connects people across different time zones, two things that put us in good stead for the inevitable growth of remote working.

There’s no doubt that doing DEI digitally unlocked exciting capabilities. Leaders are recognizing that people don’t have to be in a room together to learn and communicate.

However, as we look to 2021 and consider the longevity of our digital DEI approach, there are some important questions DEI leaders are asking. For example, how do we continue to engage people as the novelty wears off?

Yes, people feel more connected when they can see each other’s faces on a video call, but how inclusive is it to demand that everyone switches on their camera? A recent study also suggested that the shift to working from home could put us at greater risk of social silos.

Unless we do it right, remote working might threaten inclusion and belonging in our teams.

One contributor reminded us that now we’re interacting virtually, we have to think about who we are actively seeking out and getting to know.

A few leaders also talked us through their thinking around how we can’t just transplant DEI into a virtual format and expect it to work. They know that what used to be an intensive face-to-face course over a few days can’t just be transported into Zoom slots, demanding people are glued to their screens at home for hours at a time. After all, we’ve heard about Zoom fatigue contributing to burnout and disengagement.

If you’re unsure about the positive impact of your digital approach so far, you’re not alone. Our contributors were divided on how impactful they thought their tactics had been so far and admitted that it would take time.

The need for speed and agility meant digital strategies were set up hastily to meet remote working needs. These stopgaps fulfilled their purpose through the transition from face-to-face work to fully remote working.

What businesses need to ask now is: how sustainable is the digital approach we’ve put in place?

These questions need to be asked because we now know that we won’t be going back to 100% face-to-face practices. Organizations will need to figure out what their sustainable digital solution looks like, whether that’s fully digital or what our contributors referred to as a “hybrid” or “blended” approach.

The approach has to be longer-term to make it stick. We know the forgetting curve is real. We typically show a steep drop-off in how much we can remember something just hours after we’ve learned it. So, we can’t rely on sharing resources and expect that to change behavior.

Then there’s the piece around engagement. Or rather, disengagement. How do we watch out for people who might be disengaged virtually?

We heard from one leader whose company was using an LMS to share digital inclusion content found that it lacked depth and engagement. It’s because of this that we work with our customers to create content and engagement plans that keep learners engaged and coming back to the Hive Learning platform.

Two or three leaders were still skeptical at how inclusion can be effectively built through screens. There’s no denying the intimacy you get from being in the same room and making eye contact. So how do we build psychological safety online?

We heard Daniel Danso, Global Diversity Manager at Linklaters LLP, share their take on the opportunities of moving DEI online in a Hive Learning panel discussion on scaling inclusion digitally:

The thing I love about tech is that it gives me the tools to do things differently to how I normally would — it also gives us the ability to ensure that participants have more opportunity to engage in ways that are safe for them. The difference in presentation styles needed for different groups in face-to-face situations can also be impacted by tech. I can use polls, quizzes and comments to get people to share and engage in a way that helps them transcend barriers to engagement, be they cultural or hierarchical.

One example from our contributors was the “safe spaces” mentioned earlier. As people were working from home, these private discussions were held in virtual rooms where clear guidelines were set beforehand and participants were able to ask questions without fear of being chided for saying the wrong thing.

A Hive Learning client shared the same worry about psychological safety in a virtual format. What they found was that the familiar surroundings people were in contributed to participants feeling comfortable enough to open up.

Over time, we’ve seen the bravest among us model and normalize the practice of being vulnerable in places like LinkedIn. This might look like talking about an insecurity about knowing what to say, or admitting that you don’t have the right answers and that you’re all on a learning journey together. It’s how we nurture this going forward that will shape our collective psychological safety in these digital spaces.

This year, we worked with one of the UK’s fastest growing FTSE 100 manufacturing companies who had already established a peer-learning culture with thousands of people engaged on a monthly basis. They needed a solution to equip their globally dispersed workforce with the tools to model inclusive behaviour every day – they needed to understand what good looked like, and then form an inclusion habit, so they could build an environment where diversity and equity could thrive.

It was the first of this kind of initiative, but the business knew it was important for everyone to be headed in the same direction at the same time to make real progress and systemic change. They sped up their journey to coincide with the momentum of the BLM movement.

We translated our bite-size and actionable digital inclusion program, Inclusion Works, into nine different languages — and ensured that delivery was localized by editing content with a cultural lens with the help of business champions. We trained a team of champions, equipping them with all the tools they needed to drive continuous learning in their regions, functions and teams.

The business delivered strong, aligned internal comms to employees on the platform, through posts from the CEO and timely content supported by drip-fed additional resources like BLM discussion guides and topical blog posts to spark conversation. The digital program has connected over 2,000 people across 59 countries so far and we’ve already seen over 4,400 contributions made to the online inclusion dialogue.

If you want to download the full report and share it with your colleagues, get the PDF here.

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