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Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.

“Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Marie Curie, Nobel Prize winner for Physics and Chemistry

Exactly a year ago, in December 2019, none of us saw this coming. None of us could have predicted the spread of such a virus. None of us could have anticipated the impact it would have on all our lives and the ways in which we work. The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented.

Well, none of us other than Bill Gates. In his 2015 TED talk[1], Bill Gates said that the US and other countries were not prepared for the future pandemic that was going to hit them. “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war,” Gates said. “Not missiles, but microbes.”

Here we are, having been impacted by this pandemic in ways we did not fathom to be even possible; something many of us did not want to believe could be a reality. Given the impact of this pandemic on work, workplaces and how we work, it is important that we look at what this means for Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) in workplaces that are functioning very differently than they were at the start of 2020.

As countries started going into lockdown in the first quarter of 2020, maintaining inclusion through working-from-home quickly became a key concern for HR teams, and as the lockdowns continued this concern expanded into needing to find ways to make new hires feel included through the onboarding process. While no one could have imagined at that time that the pandemic would last as long as it has, we are now finding ourselves confronted with continuing to work-from-home for prolonged periods (or in some cases possibly forever) as companies realize the possible benefits of this way of working.

COVID-19 may have given us the corporate culture reboot we all needed. It showed us how little we knew about our colleagues’ personal lives even though we spent a significant part of the day and week working together. We all know though that our personal circumstances affect the way we work, our attitude towards the job and our colleagues, and we do bring those emotions into the workplace. Yet, prior to this pandemic, we all left a part of us – a part that is so important to us – outside the doors of our companies.

The pandemic has resulted in a very large-scale work-from-home experiment. But in doing so it has made even many of the most traditional leaders become conscious of not being biased against people’s personal circumstances.

The pandemic also helped us question a major bias we have had – location bias. We have always assumed that our talent should be in workplaces. Working from home was not really a widely-accepted option available to employees, with many employers, managers and leaders believing that talent is most productive when they are physically in the office. We have seen that Infosys, Tata Consulting Services (TCS), Shopify, Siemens, Google, Facebook, Twitter, State Bank of India and Microsoft[2] are all providing more long-term work-from-home options for their employees; some are even saying their employees will be working remotely indefinitely.

This has meant that a pool of talent – like young parents or those who are disabled or those who have retired but would like to continue working – who have been largely discriminated against being hired or promoted now have greater flexibility about where to work. The advantages for the talent of working-from-home or working from a distance include greater flexibility, a reduction in time spent on commuting, and the ability to balance personal life and work. For organizations too, working-from-home means reduced real-estate costs, increased productivity in employees, and happier employees.

However, to reap these positive benefits requires a great sense of trust between managers and their employees to avoid micromanaging talent who are not physically together, as well as a rethinking of organisational culture that embodies this trust and sense of inclusion.