The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and heightened glaring inequalities around the world, especially when it comes to income and wealth distribution, access to healthcare, protection under the law and political inclusion.
In the wake of major health and safety changes over the past months, leading companies and employers are looking forward to overcoming the growing workforce challenges and post-pandemic functioning of organizations. Diversity and Inclusion (D & I) is one such challenging area that top-notch organizations have been trying to discover for years, but due to global COVID crisis, this has been slightly underestimated. Diversity and Inclusion is not something to focus on only during good times, it must be more emphasized during bad times, as the impact on minorities, people with disabilities like autism and women during such challenging times is worse.
People with autism have long faced many of the inequalities stated above, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s a problem made worse by long-recognized discriminatory hiring practices and workplace environments that present major obstacles for persons with autism, all of which contribute to unemployment or severe underemployment of a large majority of adults on the autism spectrum.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by world leaders at the United Nations in 2015 provide a blueprint for addressing major challenges facing the world, including strategies for reducing inequalities that hinder prosperity for people and the planet. One of the aims of Sustainable Development Goal 8 (SDG 8) – Decent Work and Economic Growth – is to promote full and productive employment and decent work for all, including persons with disabilities. Article 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also recognizes “the right of persons with disabilities to work, on an equal basis with others,” and to a “work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities.”
Some employers have recently launched inclusive employment programmes, which accommodate people diagnosed with autism and related conditions such as ADHD, OCD, etc. — often referred to as neurodivergent persons.
Based on the experience gained from these programmes, and motivated by the desire to be socially responsible and gain a competitive advantage by benefitting from skills and abilities of a more diverse talent pool, an increasing number of employers are now creating models to make the workplace and hiring practices more inclusive generally.
The pandemic has undoubtedly impacted the efforts of companies to implement these new models, at a time when the international economy is undergoing the worst recession since the Great Depression, with the loss of hundreds of millions of jobs. At the same time, new ways of working, including remote working and the use of new technologies, have created opportunities for employees on the autism spectrum that previously found it difficult to thrive in traditional workplace environments.
Keeping this in view, World Autism Awareness Day in 2021 was celebrated with the theme ‘Inclusion in the Workplace: Challenges and Opportunities in a Post-Pandemic World’.
The impact COVID-19 will have on D & I efforts brings back the memory of what happened after the last global recession. In such challenging times, companies must focus on the core values and initiatives that will help spark a quick recovery and sustainable growth for the business. Making no mistake about it, diversity and inclusion should be a part of those core values and initiatives.
Things are tough now, no doubt about it. But it’s in tough times like these that organizations should get going on their diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Corporate leaders often agree that it’s usually in times of change, discomfort and upheaval that advances are achieved. D & I matter even more now, with a need to emphasize inclusion over exclusion. It is important that leaders acknowledge the importance of efforts they have made on D & I so far, but how to now take it a notch higher.
Due to the ongoing crisis, as the organizations tap more into technological advancements, tech giants such as Intel are looking for a better collective action on the industry’s shortcomings when it comes to diversity and inclusion. To create a baseline understanding of what it means to employ women, people with disabilities and minorities in senior and technical positions, Intel is looking forward to working with the industry to create and implement a ‘Global Inclusion Index’.
“This index should help the tech industry identify the root causes of its lack of diversity, as well as the actions needed to collectively advance progress and build a future pipeline of talent,” Intel says.
As companies are forced to adopt technologies and procedures that support remote work, they realize that the challenge here is to acknowledge the diverse needs of the workforce at the organizational level as well as the diverse home environments which they are all now confined to. In such scenarios, organizations may become more interested in hiring people with disabilities, as many of them are already perfect in the art of working remotely.
On one hand, remote work culture helps an organization to tap into a more diverse talent pool and open up work opportunities for individuals from geographically isolated areas. On the other hand working remotely can foster a more inclusive environment by providing a safe space for individuals who may feel subjected to workplace discrimination such as people with abilities and LGBTQ groups. Working remotely can also be particularly beneficial for employees – most often women and persons with disabilities like autism.
It is very important for the organizations in such situations to look back on whether the human resource policies companies traditionally offered were flexible enough in providing employees with a sense of support, even understanding, in the face of great uncertainty. Organizations should continue to improve remote work and flexible schedule policies. They should also provide caregiver support to any and all working persons.
The biggest question that still remains is whether companies will be brave enough to wipe the shortcomings in their workforce policies coming out of this crisis, and prove they are committed to a better way forward.
It is only when diversity and inclusion are baked into the DNA and part of the respective company and cultures, that it will work.
There’s no hiding from the fact that companies across the world have been placed under significant strain in recent months with business demand dropping and, in many cases, profitability sliding. Smaller companies have struggled to stay afloat with furloughing and redundancy becoming common in most organizations. But these unprecedented times and challenges have inspired new attitudes, mindsets, ways of working and business needs and imposed an evolution that could improve the workforce of the future or at least speed up a transformation that had already started.
There is little doubt that the future will be rewritten for good as a result of COVID-19, but now it is down to employers to consider their attitude and responses and seize the opportunity to implement strategic change over responding with tactical solutions.
(Dr Durga Prasad Mishra is Consultant Occupational Therapist, SVNIRTAR and Gargi Mishra is M.Tech (Biotechnology), Research Scholar)