Over the past year and a half, all industries in the United States have had to adapt to new ways of working amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, climate disasters, racial tensions and other changing forces. While organizations assess whether to bring employees back to an office, one thing is clear: this conversation must be centered around inclusion and accessibility. As the corporate world continues to align around the importance of an environmental, social and governance (ESG) framework and stakeholder capitalism, business leadership is now being pressured from all stakeholders—investors, policymakers and regulators, and employees—to put equity and inclusion at the center of the agenda.
Pressure From Policymakers
From day one, President Biden has made diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility key priorities for his administration to ensure equal opportunity for all Americans. On June 25, 2021, he signed the Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce to ensure that the federal government—the nation’s largest employer—would be a model for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, where all employees are treated with dignity and respect. This commitment was reinforced recently on the 31st Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as the Biden Administration announced a number of initiatives to bring inclusion to the forefront for all U.S. employers, government services and the American public.
The Biden administration’s focus on inclusion can also be seen through its major initiatives, including the American Jobs Plan proposal and President Biden’s broader Build Back Better agenda. While the bipartisan Infrastructure Bill currently being debated in Congress is pared down from President Biden’s initial proposal, it still includes some investments centered around equity and inclusion, including significant funding to improve the nation’s broadband infrastructure, to ensure that every American has access to high-speed internet. As the world increasingly turns to virtual technology for everyday tasks, including remote education and remote work, this bill is an important reminder that many practices put in place to protect people’s health over the past year and a half are not accessible for so many because of public infrastructure limitations. While the Biden Administration’s proposal for workforce development is not included in the current bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, it will continue to be on the legislative agenda, to ensure that dislocated workers, underserved communities, and students are included and elevated in the conversation about jobs and economic growth in the United States.
Through policy initiatives and in leading by example, the Biden Administration has made it clear that inclusion and accessibility are no longer optional, though we still have a long way to go as a nation before these factors are a given.
Investors Are Also Demanding Change
Investors also calling out equity and inclusion as material for companies, and new expectations have emerged across the workforce value chain. It is no longer enough for business leaders to simply speak about the need for inclusion and diversity. Investors, and regulators, are calling for increased disclosure and transparency, and companies are now expected to regularly measure and report out on progress for ESG-related commitments, particularly related to employee retention, board diversity and efforts focused on inclusion. There is also an increased focus on ESG ratings and rankings, including MSCI, Sustainalytics and Just Capital, which are being used to drive ESG-focused investing and assess company risk based on related data. As called out in BlackRock’s 2020 Investment Stewardship report, while business leadership is increasingly talking about equity and inclusion, the data that companies are publishing shows that there’s a still a long way to achieve “workplaces that are truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive.” BlackRock is now one of many shareholders engaging with companies to accelerate efforts around inclusion, given the strong business case for prioritizing inclusion and diversity, and understanding the risk that companies face if they don’t take action.
So What Do Companies Do Next
It is clear that equity, inclusion and accessibility must be addressed to ensure business success and business continuity. Employers must be proactive to assess and expand their policies and to update ways of working, or they will find themselves rapidly losing talent and business, or regulated into making sweeping change soon enough.
The first step is putting workers across the value chain at the center of your strategy and planning. As companies rethink employee engagement and work to turn ESG commitments into actions, the importance of listening to and communicating clearly with workers is more important than ever. It’s important to take a systemic approach to this process, that takes into account transparency, tackling bias and discrimination, and fostering belonging—with the understanding that what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for all. For example, the Marshall Plans for Moms shows that there are specific ways that employers can support mothers in the workplace, that might not be the same for other caregivers. It’s also not enough to make these changes silently—workers expect employers to advocate for them and their communities, and to stand up for the issues that are important to them. However, individual companies are not alone on this journey; there are benefits to learning from and collaborating with peers, associations, advisors and partners to amplify impact.
The return-to-office conversations are just the beginning of a workforce transformation focused on equity and inclusion that will require a lot of listening and engagement, as well as trial and error and time to get this right.