5 Steps To Ensure Your Return To Work Strategy Isn’t Excluding People From The Future Of Work

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Rachel Sheppard, the director of global marketing at global pre-seed accelerator Founder Institute, and co-founder of the Female Founder Initiative, a program launched in 2016 as a means of offering support, funding, and visibility to female founders. 

Hiring in the US has slowed sharply over recent months despite good progress being made in the country’s economic recovery. Why are companies unable to fill their job openings? Because employers haven’t been able to accommodate workers’ new needs, from health concerns to caregiving obligations.

But if businesses remain out of sync with employees, a large chunk of society will be excluded from the future of work.

Just look at the imbalances in our attitudes towards the fast-approaching return to the office. A new study shows that on the whole 66% of your employees are worried about returning to the office; however, among employees of color that fear is way higher, at 82%.

Every single social group adds a different element to the needs of tomorrow’s businesses. For example, the heightened concern among people of color highlighted in the study above, may mean they need greater flexibility as we decide on hybrid workplaces. At the same time, people suffering from intellectual disabilities might not be able to use the new CRM you bought to coordinate remote teams.

We have to remember that one million U.S. workers with disabilities lost their jobs between March and August last year. Eight times more women have dropped out of the workforce compared to men. And minorities have faced the brunt of job cuts. If leaders don’t take more permanent action in 2021 to secure the place of each and every societal group in the world of work, marginalized employees could be left behind as workplaces and digital tools evolve.

So let’s harness the momentum of 2020’s renewed focus on D&I, and look to the challenges ahead. This is what business leaders can be doing make sure their industries equally include workers with disabilities, and those of all ages, backgrounds and family situations:


Accessibility in team toolboxes has to be a priority

The rapid shift to working from home has unveiled how companies were underprepared to suitably equip employees with different abilities and contexts. People with disabilities and impairments are hindered when the remote tools they have to use lack accessibility functionalities like screen readers, live captions, keyboard shortcuts, and tone detectors. Because of this exclusion, these groups can’t capitalize on new education opportunities and workflows in the same way that others can.

There’s also the issue that employees with disabilities face additional hurdles if they have children who are remote schooling. On top of their job, parents are struggling to communicate with teachers and assist their children with tasks using technology that isn’t designed with them in mind. Considering that the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is already nearly double the national average, these tech obstacles put their work-life balance in an even more vulnerable position.

You need to reassess your teams’ tools and consciously curate a toolbox that removes friction for all employees, which means first understanding where people are being restricted. Founders could launch a taskforce to discuss people’s experiences with the current tools and research tools that better serve more employees; just make sure that the task force is made up of different groups and that it’s clearly conveyed as part of your company’s strategy, not simply a side project. 

Let’s not forget your product in all of this – you also have to move the trend forward. Tools like Stark can check the accessibility of your products by integrating with your existing design software. Externally, you’ll be at the forefront of a D&I-conscious era of product development, and avoid nasty compliance issues in the long run. Internally, you’ll be showing everyone from coworkers to investors that you’re serious about taking the progressive and inclusive approach.


Mentorship can reorient new workers

Despite being deemed more remote-ready than other generations, young professionals are battling a rising sense of disconnectedness. Being physically separated from teams just as they begin to enter the work space has meant that new Gen Z employees are missing out on developing crucial interpersonal skills. Even more concerning, predictions state that young people’s pay could be lower for three years after the pandemic, which could hinder their capacity to invest in their personal development both for and outside of their careers.

New employees who were onboarded virtually have a completely different experience and purview of the company. Studies show that newly on-boarded employees are struggling to connect with their teammates, and that they feel distanced from the general company culture and values. 

Mentorship is one of the most powerful ways to reorient this limbo. Research shows that when properly coached, new professionals’ learning process is enhanced and faster. Your company should assign a list of mentors (ideally in leadership roles) to guide younger and new employees who are missing the day-to-day learning they would ordinarily gain from watching colleagues in action in the office. These relationships should focus on upskilling younger and new employees and giving them the time and space to grow. Mentors should be responsible for organizing speaking opportunities, making introductions to relevant connections within and outside their industry, and involving the mentee in group meetings.

Mentors should meet with new employees as frequently as they can. Admittedly, mentorship can be a substantial addition to leadership’s workload, which is why it’s beneficial to make a crowdsourced database with learning materials too. Here, you can ask employees from all levels and all departments to recommend books, platforms, podcasts, and more that can facilitate young employees’ growth. Allowing mentees to “shadow” their mentor by being in the background of some important meetings is also important.


Caregivers need greater flexibility and new boundaries

The pandemic has caused what one UN expert calls ‘a crisis of care,’ where responsibilities such as raising children, supporting the elderly, and sustaining connections in larger communities have been severely disrupted. While both sexes have been impacted, the weight of these duties has disproportionately fallen on women, who spend longer hours on unpaid childcare and domestic work. Women are also more likely to have to leave their jobs because of increased unpaid demands: 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely.

With teams working from home, as a leader you need to ensure that your employees’ personal and professional worlds are in sync. Make sure you’re aware of who in your company is a caregiver, and offer them more flexible hours, or perhaps discuss the possibility of a four-day week schedule. Ultimately, you want to make sure that individuals tell you what works for them, not the other way around.

When it comes to meetings, suggest phone calls instead of only video calls. Employees are already at risk of Zoom fatigue, so switching up the medium can be a breath of fresh air and also means they don’t feel the pressure of being on camera and looking presentable. Make sure that all your team members respect people’s off-hours, and avoid sending Slack messages outside of their preferred working times or ‘urgent’ emails at the end of the day. This is particularly important for management, who have to rethink their expectations around when people are available.


Mental health support should be open to – and dictated by – employees

Mental health providers have witnessed an unprecedented surge in demand during the pandemic. Since the onset of the crisis, 75% of U.S. workers say they have struggled due to anxiety, while the number of adults experiencing depression has tripled in the United States. 

Mental health has become such a prevalent issue among workers that 80% say they would consider leaving their company for a job that focuses more on employees’ wellbeing. However, people don’t necessarily want their employer knowing that they are struggling with mental health, so leaders need to find ways to provide discreet but accessible support. The aim should be to create systems that allow employees to reach out for assistance without assuming that they have to talk about their personal lives in a work environment. 

For starters, founders can create a fund that workers can anonymously tap into for counselling, renting a coworking space, paying for child support, a dog walker or anything that makes their day-to-day life easier. Such funds are already being set up by executives from Comcast and Union Square Hospitality Group, who have taken a percentage of their salary to build the financial pool for workers. 

Another option is to provide employees with a range of tools to maintain positive mental health. You could introduce software like Wellbot in your company, which uses desktop notifications to remind employees to hydrate, eat well, and take regular screen breaks. You could offer memberships to online counselling platforms like BetterHelp and TalkSpace or a subscription to well-being apps.

Alternatively, you could invest in wearable technology for employees, like TouchPoint wristbands, which emit vibrations to disengage standard stress responses and help people form behavioral patterns to reduce stress over time. For employees with intellectual disabilities, Awake Labs has a smartwatch and app that displays levels of strong emotions in real time, and notifies the wearer or caregiver if levels start to increase – meaning staff can take action before their emotions escalate.

The pandemic has forced a reawakening around diversity and inclusion, and while that awareness matters, it doesn’t automatically equate to progress. Old issues are evolving and new issues are surfacing, and businesses need to continuously build atop learnings from 2020 to represent all of society in the new conditions. The conversation around D&I is gaining volume, but there’s a way to go before everyone is heard.

  • Originally published June 15, 2021