Opening for Business – by Shelton Goode and Cathy Light

Finding New Ways to Serve
Employees, Customers and Communities

Over the past few weeks, we have been exploring the effects of the coronavirus on organizations and ways to mitigate the cultural and economic damage they face. To assess the current landscape, we conducted an informal survey of roughly 80 organizations from across metro Atlanta in partnership with HR Executive Roundtable and the HR Leadership Forum. The sample includes organizations from a variety of industry groups. While it is not representative of the U.S., Georgia, or metro Atlanta economy as a whole, it does capture the intense distress being experienced by mid-size, tech, and retail-oriented companies — a snapshot of the crisis, collected recently. We wanted to understand how organizations were dealing with the disruption and what they planned to do once their companies decided to re-open. We were particularly interested in their human resource and leadership resilience and the challenges of bringing employees back to work.

We also spoke with HR and Diversity leaders at banks, tech companies, and other organizations to understand how the crisis was impacting their relationships with their employees. We hosted an online discussion of the issues related to overcoming the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As companies, communities, and the country weigh when and how to re-open, there was agreement that a new normal must emerge that values diversity, equity, inclusion, well-being, and respect for individual differences. These values are often seen as being in tension with business goals, but we do believe that they can be successfully managed with authentic, transparent, and inclusive leadership. 

As a result of our research, benchmarking, and discussions with HR and diversity leaders, and the broader research on business next practices, we have mapped out a way forward. Five key themes emerged:

  1. Businesses do not have a plan on how to reintegrate the employees that they laid off in huge numbers.
  2. Most businesses are anxious about protecting their customers. One HR leader in the retail industry shared that her stores are considering removing cosmetic and perfume samples from makeup counters, installing shields, and creating contact-free checkout options.
  3. A majority of businesses think that re-opening at the end of May 2020 is a bad idea, but a large minority is less concerned about the timing.
  4. Businesses disagree about protecting employees once they are back in the workplace. HR leaders in the retail industry shared that their companies are considering sneeze guards and ways to quarantine fitting room items. HR leaders in the restaurant industry are concerned about the optics of masked servers and a future that includes “daily” temperature checks. HR leaders in industries built on the personal touch, are considering ways to eliminate physical contact.
  5. Many businesses are unsure about whether employees will be loyal and engaged once they return to work for them. Some HR leaders fear that now that most employees have had a chance to work from home, companies will not be able to “put the genie back in the bottle” and return to normal 9-5 weekly operations. Other HR leaders believe that employees who have been cooped up in their homes could be more amenable to a traditional Monday through Friday workweek, or a combination of work at home and office, than they might have been before their world turned upside down.

So where do we go from here?  Businesses need financial recovery and want to open as soon as possible. Employees are anxious about returning to work. They expect to feel safe and secure on entering into the “new” workplace if they’re going to have a positive mindset. What will an organization’s Reopening Onboarding Process look like to optimize employee well-being, rebuild leadership trust, and improve cultures that finally put diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront of decision making?  Pressures are immense for leaders to lead like never before and to create a positive work environment, so employees can be effective and efficient.  Yet, speed in decision-making is accelerating as are business performance pressures from stakeholders. Less hierarchy will be needed as leaders must demonstrate their ability to ensure alignment and agility, and high-levels of trust in employees to get the right work done.  Heightened expectations will be placed on leaders who must go from recovery and rebound almost immediately to a new operational rhythm that means collective success for all.


It will be years before we fully understand the impact of the coronavirus on companies, communities, and the country. But one thing is clear right now. Companies are facing an immediate threat. For example, companies with fewer than 1,500 employees account for almost half of the jobs in the U.S. These companies are an essential part of our economy, and they’re often the first companies to abandon their diversity and inclusion initiatives because of limited resources. As organizations look to re-opening during the sweeping disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, businesses around the country should double-down on their DEI investment. This is the time for companies to look to many DEI-thought leaders for ideas.

Here are five recommendations for re-opening your business with DEI in mind:

  1. Don’t make short term decisions; instead, make long term plans.
  2. Invest in your employees now by enhancing their diversity, equity, and inclusion skills.
  3. Figure out how your customers’ needs have changed and leverage DEI to address those needs.
  4.  Do a realistic assessment of your organization. Realize you cannot go back to the past. In fact, why should you? Leverage the crisis as a platform for change.
  5. Keep your best employees loyal. Employees want to work for a company that is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The next 6-18 months will be the decisive time as the new climate for business brings fundamental changes to the operating environment for companies. It will also be a crucial time in terms of companies achieving their diversity, equity, and inclusion aspirations—creating an engaged workforce and workplace. Our collective ability to achieve a culture and climate in which everyone can work with dignity and respect lies in the balance. These next months will be about creating resilient business strategies as companies move to redefine business and the role of DEI within the company, enabling them to navigate profound change, deliver value, and create positive outcomes for employees, customers, communities, and shareholders.

Also see Find Your “Where” – where they care about diversity by Rose Opengart

Dr. Shelton Goode, Cathy Light
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