For weeks, leaders in our profession have been living, breathing, and reacting to COVID-19. Thank you for your continued leadership as things change from day to day. You send emails, schedule calls, and communicate with your teams. Thank you. We all recognize that these are peculiar times and law school does not train us on how to lead in a pandemic. Some of the people in our organizations are overwhelmed, and some are relishing introvert time (for the moment). The people we lead look to us for guidance—not only on how we manage the business and meet our client demands, but also in how we preserve culture, inclusion, and belonging in these extraordinary times. How we go through this pandemic will determine the organizations we have on the other end.
The primary questions I invite you to engage in with me are: How can we maintain connection with our teams in a way that promotes well-being and inclusion; and how can we maintain our commitment to inclusion and diversity? This is important because this is a time to double down on inclusion, diversity, and equity, and not allow progress to stall. Some thoughts:
Start with empathy—people first. Remember that working remotely for an indefinite time for many people is new. While many of us work while traveling, in trial, and in situations that take us out of the office, this is new for many others. Our people are likely experiencing increased stress, anxiety, depression, and more. This is a time where we need to check in on people, ask how they are doing, direct them to resources as needed and support the adjustments they may be making. For example, I am now supervising the online learning of a 2nd grader and a 6th grader who are much more cooperative for others than they are with me, in addition to everything else. As leaders we have prioritized team members in the past and now are invited to do it even more. Being socially distant is necessary but resulting social isolation is costly. The impact of social isolation, the inability to engage in community for restoration, and the fear and uncertainty pervasive all combine for a very difficult situation, even for us ambitious, driven high performers.
Make it personal. To the extent you can videoconference instead of call, do it. If a quick phone call can be made instead of an email, make the call. It is amazing how the sound of someone’s voice or seeing their face will help people feel connected and part of a group. It is critical that we maintain and expand opportunities to connect and communicate during this time. Suggestions include: Have weekly video meetings where people discuss accomplishments and challenges, virtual happy hours (inclusive of mocktails, of course) with no talk about work, morning coffee chats for 15 minutes where everyone can be on the same page and discuss shared goals, etc.
Care about what our people care about. As leaders, we are invited to pay attention to the rising hate crimes and xenophobic and racist attacks against Asian Americans and acknowledge them. While we would like to think that what happens outside of work has no bearing, external incidents always impact the individual in the workplace. People come into work and if we say we want them to bring their whole selves then that whole includes how they may be navigating increased xenophobia directed at them and people like them.
The coincidence of social distancing with a season of religious and cultural holidays has given us an opportunity to practice cultural fluency. These observances involve cultural communal traditions that bring people together, which are not possible when we shelter in place. For me, this invokes grief—as it does for many others because of the loss of religious and cultural traditions, community, and communal worship. These observances also give us an opportunity to be mindful of the practices of those we work with and how it may impact them and their availability. This article from Yusuf Z. Zakir on LinkedIn, “Understanding Ramadan and Supporting Your Muslim Colleagues During Covid-19,” does an excellent job of outlining how we can support Muslim colleagues during Ramadan.
Keep up the focus on all the development programs intended to advance inclusion and diversity. This includes engagement with systems and processes that ensure people from underrepresented groups get the same opportunties for developmentally rich work and client contact. This is a time to ensure diverse talent have equitable access to these key systems that determine engagement, advancement and retention.
As leaders reach out to those who you mentor, sponsor, or are coaching and encourage others to do so. As we manage people or serve as sponsors, coaches and mentors goals and priorities may have shifted for our protégés and mentees. We can empower them and walk alongside them as they navigate this new normal.
Our commitment to inclusion and diversity during the pandemic also means being alert to inappropriate comments (beyond the anti-Asian specific xenophobia and racism) that may arise via jokes, memes, or even offhand comments. Please remind others that we must remain respectful in our language and behavior to others.
Show people they are valued. Remember I said people need to feel that they are connected, belong, and are loved? Valuing the contributions of individuals is a key component of engagement and inclusion. Show appreciation for all the work everyone is doing, be inclusive in offering praise and recognition and do not allow the virtual nature of our work to stop us from doing this frequently. I once asked a departing team member how I could have been a better leader to her. She said, “be specific in your praise.” Leadership and inclusion best practices encourage us to specifically mention what we are showing appreciation for.
Be intentional in equitable access to networks and information. We know that inadequate access to networks, formal and informal, as well as contact with leaders and clients plays a role in engagement and unwanted attrition. These mentioned areas are known hidden barriers to the advancement of diverse attorneys. Let’s continue facilitating networking across our organizations and with clients and do so inclusively. For instance, if you have teams working on rapid response to COVID-19 related newsletters, ensure you have diversity on those teams and also are giving diverse talent an opportunity to contribute and lead.
If your organization has a Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer or head of Diversity & Inclusion, reach out to them for support. I know many of us have spent weeks worrying about diverse talent, how we can support them, and how we can ensure progress made will not be derailed.