There's no question that 2020 challenged businesses to reexamine the way they support their people. But beyond the quick fixes that many companies made in order to help their teams transition to remote work, the crises we experienced last year also gave leaders a chance to think about some of the deeper, more systemic issues they can address to improve the employee experience in the long-term. These include inequities in the talent pipeline, and readiness to adapt skill sets to the changing world of work.
Creating an inclusive labor market is a core part of nonprofit social enterprise Opportunity@Work's mission. Issues like social justice, talent, and economic mobility have always been top of mind for co-founder & senior advisor Karan Chopra — and 2020 only re-invigorated this focus.
Chopra's objective is to help redesign companies in a way that produces "more catalysts and fewer casualties." Part of the solution, Chopra finds, lies in the composition of an organization's workforce. This means that leaders should not only analyze the state of diversity in their companies, but also look out for — and remedy — current practices that may put minorities at a disadvantage.
For example, when evaluating 30 roles that were growing pre-pandemic, including technical and business development positions, Opportunity@Work found that 90% of them required a four-year degree. "That automatically screens out 68% of black people and 79% of Latinx people, just putting in the degree requirement," Chopra says. "Where is the most diversity in your workforce? You will likely find that it's actually in your entry level staff, and in many cases there is no pathway to move from lower-wage work into middle and higher-wage work."
Chopra encourages companies to "think about the technological transformation that's happening," and to evaluate the human's role in it. While it may be tempting to depend entirely on training programs to introduce more diversity, Chopra's mindset is that change starts with understanding the skills and capabilities you already have, and how those match up with where your business is headed.
Online learning to help close the DEI gap
How can organizations help existing employees grow their skill sets to close the diversity and inclusion gap? One way is through online learning. While many organizations were already investing in digital resilience well before the pandemic, Arunav Sinha, vp of global communications at online course provider Coursera, notes that the crisis has accelerated the acceptance of online learning as a consequence of the mass shift to remote work.
Some organizations use Coursera content as a way to support the transformations that are underway at their organizations, offering data science courses to help their teams develop the skills needed to respond to digital disruption within their industry. According to Sinha, Coursera's professional gateway content enables employees to earn a Google IT certificate, which anyone with a high school diploma can obtain even if they have no previous IT experience. "Within six months, (they) can become proficient enough to be a support engineer," Sinha says.
Another perk of online learning is that it allows companies to stay at the forefront of innovation. If a global pharmaceutical company wants to become a leader in healthcare, it can educate its employees in genome sequencing and data-driven approaches to medicine. "We now have 30 professional certificates on the platform where leading tech companies are turning into educators to develop the talent ecosystem." Sinha says.
In addition to subjects like data science and machine learning, businesses are increasingly coming to Coursera to learn more about personal development, communication, leadership, and strategy. By identifying opportunities for improvement and formulating strategies for employee growth, Coursera's clients can do their part to ensure that labor practices always put people first.
Innovating team design
In her role as senior people & communities partner at global technology company Cisco, Nicole Osetek is on the frontline of business transformation as well. Cisco has long been prioritizing talent agility and mobility, but the company is now breaking down traditional organizational boundaries, and making space for "horizontal communities" that include people leaders and employee resource groups focused on diverse talent.
Women of Cisco, Connected Black Professionals, and Cisco Global Marketers are all examples of communities that "tie people together outside of their functional org hierarchy," Osetek says. "The idea is that people belong to groups with common needs that are not only driven by where they sit in an organization."
Another initiative Osetek has been working on is dynamic teaming, which she describes as a reflection of how Cisco's people were already working. "If you have a top priority, you're basically finding your internal experts and putting them on that project, regardless of whether they report into the responsible team or not. So we are trying to formalize some of that," she says.
This is being done by creating "static teams" that serve as a team within the org structure, and "dynamic teams" that give others the opportunity to participate, engage, and learn on a project outside of their static team. "It's ultimately both good for the company — because you can leverage talent that you need for your biggest priorities — and good for people, because it's a way of opening up opportunities for them as well."
Employees love gaining experience in, and exposure to, a new area of the business, Osetek says. Meanwhile, leaders are supportive of the system because it allows them to help their people grow. "We use the term talent agility a lot at Cisco," Osetek notes, "and we have a whole team that is dedicated to thinking about different solutions for the organization in that space."
While the disruption and economic pressures facing organizations may be disheartening, the outcome on diversity and talent mobility can be a positive one. The pandemic has presented an opportunity to assess shortages and gaps in knowledge and skills within the existing workforce — but more importantly, it has empowered leaders to make greater investments in building a more inclusive and resilient talent pipeline.