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Successful leaders of the future will share three main traits

REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
Looking ahead.
  • Ulysses Smith
By Ulysses Smith

Head of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at Blend

At what point does “unprecedented” lose its meaning?

Is it when stopgap shelter-in-place orders stretch into their fourth month? Is it when yet another Black life is stolen mere hours after change was promised? Is it when protests continue well past the spotty attention of 24-hour news networks?

For those looking to actually enact progress—especially leaders at the organizations where tired, thinly stretched workers dread hearing the next empty platitude—it’s time for a change in vocabulary.

There’s no manual offering instructions for navigating this time. But there are exemplary leaders at companies investing in company culture and inclusive practices, whom we can all look to for a better way to bring about change.

The language they speak is an active one; the words they use activate, encourage, and buoy.

More leaders can join them in moving beyond the fear of the “unprecedented” by focusing on three key adjectives and embedding them into their daily actions: inclusive, interpersonal, and representative.

Inclusive: As in practical work-from-home policies for your people

Even during a pandemic, some business leaders and people managers are resistant to flexible and remote work arrangements. They want sustained in-person interactions. They require on-demand employee availability. In each controlling action, they betray their lack of trust in employees.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has also put many challenges to employees’ productivity and morale into sharp relief—for instance, the renegotiating of work-life balance, the unequal access to equipment and resources, the emotional and physical toll of systemic inequities, and the disappearance of childcare options that normally allow parents to focus fully on work during “business” hours.

To address these concerns, organizations need to create new policies or revamp old ones so that employees can prioritize the areas of their lives in a way that works for both them and their employer. These new policies can include stipends to help workers set up a separate office space within their homes, making working times flexible so that caregivers can log on for work at times best suited for their schedule, or even taking it a step further and allowing personal leave time beyond a company’s regular allocation. Together, these actions ensure your employees are being compensated while managing different influences in their lives.

Interpersonal: As in building connections while staying remote

Bringing your whole self to work now has a very different meaning, and the informal interactions employees had in the office before—running into one another at the snack cabinet, holding team happy hours, or sitting down together for a purposeful discussion around topics like allyship—are gone for the foreseeable future.

What employees gain from casual workplace interactions is harder to attain when not in an office, so organizations need to establish new ways for employees to connect and discuss the important topics that come up every day. Early on during shelter-in-place, Blend introduced weekly, companywide video calls to mimic the moments found in our physical kitchenettes, where our people could have spontaneous conversations, meet new faces, and spend time with one another. We’ve seen everything from book club discussions, recipe sharing and baking advice, and even a game of fetch with one of our office dogs, all leading to stronger relationships between co-workers, despite being physically separated from one another.

One of my biggest projects during the pandemic is finding innovative ways to deliver education about diversity, inclusion, and belonging, particularly on some of the more uncomfortable topics like racism and unconscious bias. Engaging your employee resource groups is a good place to start, as well as holding roundtables for open  discussions on topics like allyship and representation, or even planning culturally focused virtual events for all to join.

Representative: As in seeing and hearing your employees in a new way

Another big challenge for organizations as the pandemic continues will be the impact on equitable access to career opportunities — particularly for women and underrepresented groups. Last-in, first-out rules are typically used in crisis situations and often protect those with seniority in the organization. These types of policies have detrimental effects on marginalized groups working in industries like tech, which have only just begun to diversify their ranks.

Even if your company manages to avoid layoffs, it may struggle with having women and minorities in leadership positions. The impact of “out of sight, out of mind” is real, even for those of us with the best of intentions.

Institute diverse voices from across the company into decision-making positions, especially around tech, policies, and workplace protocol. This will help underrepresented groups see their needs being met and give them a safe space to take their concerns.

Above all else, be sure that your company is supporting employees where it counts – through advocacy and action. Supporting the Black Lives Matter movement giving employees space to talk about what’s going on in the world and in their own homes, and using events like Pride to find unique things to celebrate are just a few of the measures we’re taking at Blend.

It’s time to face the future

The world we’re living in today may feel unprecedented, but it’s time to move forward. Companies everywhere have an opportunity to mindfully reevaluate their policies, become more intentional about virtual relationship-building, and invest in practices that foster diverse representation and recognition even when everyone is physically distanced from one another.

Inclusive, interpersonal, and representative. The companies that incorporate these ideals into their actions—despite all of today’s competing priorities and demands—will develop the engaged workforces they’ll need to get through this crisis, and well beyond it.

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