The Global Pandemic: a Catalyst for Cultural and DEI Awareness in Organizations

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by Chris Richardson, January 2022

As we reached the end of 2021, the year was dominated by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Countries the world over were forced to re-introduce sweeping social restrictions for the first time in living memory. Such nationwide measures were duplicated within organizations in every corner of Planet Earth. Suddenly, office staff from such disparate locations as Helsinki, Houston and Hyderabad were experiencing the exact same workplace requirements. Working remotely suddenly became the norm, wherever it was in the world that the employee was located. While business practices are now getting back to the pre-pandemic model in many locations, a recent survey found that 74% of business leaders are planning to retain large numbers of their once on-site workforce in remote positions. Another study showed that only 50% of people in five big European countries will be spending every weekday in the office from now on. It is thought that a quarter of the corporate workforce in Europe will remain at home on a full-time basis.

 

The Post-Pandemic Transformation of Team Structures

Concurrent with this has been a large-scale remodeling of team structures within international businesses. This has primarily involved creating a new corporate organizational framework. In a post-pandemic world, team composition is ever more based on three key criteria:

  • Employees working remotely full time.
  • Employees returning to the office.
  • Employees adopting a “hybrid” model with part of the week in the office.

In doing this, the quest by business leaders for organizational efficiencies - as well as for economies of scale - has led to an exponentially greater number of diverse global locations being involved in the final composition of corporate teams. Managers who had never before had to think about things beyond their own national environment, suddenly found themselves coping with the direct responsiblity of team members in other countries - and even other continents.

This has inevitably put individuals to the test, whether they are located in a home location that is considered to be a “global” city - such as London or New York - or somewhere that has far less routine exposure to the outside world. An example of the latter would be the headquarters of a multinational company located in rural Germany or the Midwest region of the United States. Wherever the person is sitting, the challenges of running a global team remain the same. The ability of the manager to cope with them, will of course depend on the location involved. This is the “obvious” part of the scenario. The far more imperceptible part of the equation, is the fact that the ability of the manager to “flex” into their new responsibilities equally depends on their own life story. In today’s remote world, this is the case no matter if the managers have had any personal international experience themselves or have never left the headquarters location.

It is imperative that senior leaders of international organizations recognize this fact, if their new team structures are to thrive in the long term. As observed in an analogy by John Powell, a Director of the University of California at Berkeley: “International managers may not all play the trumpet or violin, but they now need to help people to be able to successfully play together.”

 

Global Disparities in Reacting to a Common Threat

A first and useful step in successfully managing a global team, is of course to have a broad understanding of the environment that an employee may be living in. The first clues to this can actually be seen in the ways in which different societies around the world have responded to the rigorous social restrictions that were imposed upon them. In entirely general terms, countries where people place a high emphasis on group welfare (such as Greece) usually experienced widespread compliance with the public health measures related to the pandemic. Countries that are recognized as being more individualistic (such as the United States) tended to experience more resistance to the requirement to wear masks and/or social distancing. In such locations, plenty of people were resentful to the very concept of a lockdown being imposed by the central or local Government (beyond any practical constraints and concerns they may have had personally). Meanwhile there are many countries that fall between the two ends of the spectrum (such as Germany). For the manager of a remote international team to be successful, it is extremely useful to be aware of the wider context that prevails in each disparate location for which he or she may be responsible. The way in which countries have responded to the various COVID-19 pandemic restrictions has caused national cultural differences to be highlighted.

 

Basic Definitions of a Diverse Team

An international virtual team can be defined as “a group of people who work interdependently with a shared purpose across space, time and organization boundaries using technology”. Virtual teams may be composed of members from vastly different cultures, working in geographically diverse - and possibly distant - locations around the world. This alone creates hazards and obstacles in communication processes that in turn can cause personal conflicts and threaten the level of trust between members or towards the remote manager. Language barriers can also influence team communication on many levels, even beyond the basic comprehension of the group’s chosen language of communication. At the emotional level, language barriers can intensify a feeling of frustration and/or isolation among some team members. However if it is handled correctly, these elements of diversity can cause teams to be more curious and open and thus more innovative.

Primary elements of cultural diversity around the world have been known and accepted for some time. These can be described in the purest of terms as:

  • High context vs. low context communication cultures
  • Individualist vs. collectivist cultures
  • Uncertainty avoidance level (risk tolerance)
  • Acceptance of hierarchy (the power-distance ratio)
  • Achievement and success vs. quality-of-life and collaboration.

The remote leader working with colleagues from disparate cultures needs to “flex” his or her approach. For instance when dealing with team members from collectivist cultures, it can be valuable to stress their significance in the final result of the team effort. Concurrently team members from more individualistic cultures need to be specifically given time for their personal effort to be acknowledged. Even such a simple “flex” as that can make all the difference.

As well as the cultural impacts related to the team manager, the cultural elements listed above also have implications between team members. The technical environment and nature of work in a virtual team is uniquely challenging. Studies have shown that the best candidate for a global virtual team member may be a person who is able to combine collectivism with low uncertainty avoidance. Team members from low-context cultures may be considered as better prepared to collaborate in a virtual environment. For such individuals can often feel inherently more satisfied - and therefore can be more efficient - than their peer members from more high-context cultures.

All of this brings great opportunities for virtual team members - and their managers - to improve their intercultural and language competencies. This ultimately enables team members to better reach their global potential. Successful global virtual collaboration is becoming ever more crucial, as more and more employers are competing for virtual team workers. Although such are the changes to the post-pandemic workplace, companies are also having to look at themselves at a more profound level than their existing practices and policies regarding language and intercultural training. Post-pandemic success requires deep corporate self-understanding.

 

Upping the Cultural Game

At the start of the pandemic, the rapid adoption of international virtual teams was routinely termed as “the new normal”. By now the “newness” has faded and - as mentioned above - businesses are in the process of re-defining their ongoing business practices. This is the case, whether the headquarters of an international company is in the Bavarian countryside or the middle of Manhattan. Given the permanent nature of the post-pandemic business world, the time has come for organizations to now look at how to bring durability and stability - and therefore add strength - to the equation. This requires them to review - in some cases for the first time - the level and nature of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (referred to henceforth in this article as DEI) that prevails within the enterprise, both at home and abroad.

A definition of DEI may be useful at this point:

  • Diversity is the presence of differences within a given setting. In the workplace, that can mean differences in race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age and socioeconomic class.
  • Equity is the act of ensuring that processes and programs are impartial, fair and provide equal possible outcomes for every individual.
  • Inclusion is the practice of ensuring that people feel a sense of belonging in the workplace. This means that every employee feels comfortable and supported by the organization when it comes to being their authentic selves.

These more “refined” aspects of the cultural prism have always been present. However in most enterprises it is the pandemic - and the resultant changes in business practice - that are now causing organizations to make a specific review of their DEI “state of health”. This is a time when companies are opening up their DEI landscape, both in terms of awareness at the “C-Suite” level and among employees at all levels. The key to achieving enduring success is the implementation of organizational policies and processes that maintain the awareness moving forward. The whole perception of - and attitude towards - organizational DEI is finally being accepted as a critical element of business survival. It is now generally accepted in the business world that diverse companies that are not focused on diversity and inclusion do not perform as well as those that are. Diverse companies are able to hire the best talent, and can boast more engaged employees who possess a sincere “sense of belonging” to the enterprise.

The large numbers of remote workers that we now see - in wildly diverse locations - gives business leaders a responsibility to implement DEI into their company culture wherever possible. This goes deeper than simply hiring diverse groups into new roles. It is a question of leaders and employees fully understanding where they themselves are on the DEI spectrum. Subsequent to that, it is important to continuously educate and maintain core values around DEI to ensure their sustainability. Primary to this is an awareness of unconscious bias.

 

Understanding Unconscious Bias

Research shows that everyone has unconscious or implicit biases. They are a natural part of human conditioning as we grow up and develop our belief systems. Being aware of them can enormously enhance remote team interaction, and thus promote success.

Awareness of unconscious bias is a three stage process:

  • The understanding of what unconscious bias is
  • The recognition of our own unconscious biases
  • Learning how to allay unconscious bias

Again, the awareness of unconscious bias is of equal importance to every member of an organization - from the CEO to the entry level worker. Enterprise-wide understanding of unconscious bias leads to a general increase in overall morale, and with it.improved employee retention and productivity rates. This in turn has a direct impact on profit margins and success.

Law firms are at the forefront in industry sectors that are understanding unconscious bias, and are increasingly incorporating programs to raise awareness. The key reason being that this can help to increase diversity of representation and, in turn, promote inclusion in and by the legal profession. In wider terms, this can only have a positive result for society in general.

 

The Building Blocks of a Successful DEI Strategy

The DEI journey for most organizations begins with unconscious bias training, which is a core pillar of the strategy. Policies and goals related to DEI can be introduced that define the ongoing strategy of the enterprise. However, to convert unconscious bias awareness and policy into actual results, individuals must be able to recognize their personal experiences as well their previous experiences within the enterprise. Enabling employees to understand their own DEI “state of health” enables employees to work together in creating sustainable improvements.

The 2020 annual report of the global management consulting firm McKinsey and Company found that organizations that have active DEI initiatives in place outperformed those that do not. Companies with more than 30% women executives were more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranged from 10% to 30%. In addition, a substantial differential likelihood of outperformance - 48% - separates the most gender-diverse companies from the least. In the case of ethnic and cultural diversity, top-quartile companies outperformed those in the fourth one by 36% in profitability (compared to 33% in 2017 and 35% in 2014). Previous studies have found that the likelihood of outperformance was higher for diversity in ethnicity than for gender.

One high profile organization in the United States that recognizes the importance of this is the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Their DEI efforts are being managed as an organizational priority, and include a corporate performance goal dedicated to agency-wide DEI improvements at every level. (Source: “A Message from the Chairman” @ www.fdic.gov).

The level of acceptance - the world over - that companies need a successful DEI strategy to survive is encouraging. However, challenges remain. The diverse nature of locations involved in today’s remote teams is one of them. The way in which post-pandemic team structures have caused previously unheard-of reporting lines to be established between diverse locations and corporate headquarters is another. A holistic approach is required to achieve DEI success.

 

Embracing Technology

Technology can help. Indeed a remote team situation is entirely dependent on the successful embracing of technology, to even be able to function at all. The ability of managers and employees to conduct an online DEI self-assessment - in exactly the same way throughout the organization, wherever they may be - can bring immediate improvements to remote team harmony. This in turn helps leaders to understand the DEI strengths and weaknesses of a given team. Tailored learning programs can then be adopted as necessary. Further steps, such as the setting of goals, the setting up of an ongoing curriculum and measurement milestones throughout the enterprise can further bring a holistic DEI result to an organization. The more diverse the team and its locations are, the more imperative it is that appropriate educational technology is deployed consistently to all of the stages of the process. The successful use of the learning technology that is now available in the field of DEI can foster a sense of belonging for every individual involved, whatever their personal story is or wherever their location may be.

 

DEI in a Post Pandemic Business World

As already mentioned, it was the global pandemic that caused most businesses to look at themselves in terms of DEI. But whatever the back story, DEI values will remain at the forefront of company decision-making, all around the world. In an increasingly globalized business arena, effectiveness in DEI communication and actions is an imperative. Companies that are not diverse underperform in every industry sector. In the harsh global business environment of today, a lack of internal diversity can jeopardize the very existence of an organization.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Richardson has lived in seven countries on three continents, performing both global and regional roles in the area of mobility and talent management. As Managing Editor of World Trade Resource, Chris has overall responsibility for the content integrity for 200 countries around the world for the World Trade Resource (WTR). He speaks French and German in addition to his native English. An avid traveler, Chris enjoys returning to the countries in which he has lived while every year also visiting a new country for the first time.