By  Raafi-Karim Alidina consultant with global diversity and inclusion consultancy Frost Included and co-author of new book Building An Inclusive Organisation,

COVID-19 has put an incredible amount of stress on governments, companies, economies, and individuals around the world. For organisations, the stress and sheer workload of moving your workforce to remote working, and then reintegrating them again, means there may be very little headspace left for managers to consider things like diversity and inclusion (D&I). The topic may seem superfluous, and might elicit responses like, "we have bigger things to worry about right now."

When we speak with managers, leaders, and executives about what those "bigger things" might be, they talk about how all this adaptation they're being forced into means they need to:

1.     Inspire more creativity and innovation

2.     Connect with employees on a personal level

3.     Help people work more efficiently and productively

4.     Aid in the maintenance of the health and safety of their colleagues

We recognize that with everything going on - with all the stress that managers and leaders are under - it's really easy to not be inclusive right now, and to not pay attention to it. But the fact is that D&I can help us attain all of these goals, particularly as we think about returning to work. Inclusive workplaces have more psychological safety for innovative thinking, they reduce loneliness and foster better mental and physical health, and they increase workplace agility and productivity. Getting this right is not just about ‘doing the right thing' - it will actually help to ensure that your business returns to productivity and ultimately success in a much more cohesive way.

This is not just about physical reintegration in the office. It's not simply a technical exercise. There is an emotional side to returning to work there with people making huge adjustments again to their lives. It's about being much more open to flexible ways of working, it's about making accommodating employees' caring responsibilities a priority, it's about understanding people's different needs, relating to them as individuals, and as a result helping them perform at their best.

Businesses need to balance business goals with the welfare and safety of their employees. But rather than seeing this as mutually exclusive, consider inclusion as the methodology with which you will proceed to reintegrate your workforce.

The Platinum Rule

People often talk about the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" - treat others the way you want to be treated.  But a more effective guiding principle might be what we call the Platinum Rule: Treat others the way they want to be treated. It may sound difficult to do as it requires really assessing individuals' needs, however consulting the workforce now, and making them part of the future solution, will be a sustainable route.

Begin by considering individual circumstances - what have your reports' experiences throughout the pandemic been like? Have they been struggling balancing caring for their kids, homeschooling them, and working full time? Have they been experiencing increased stress, anxiety, or depression like 80% of those who already suffered from mental illness? Have they been thriving and more productive than ever before? Talk to your people to understand what they want, and how best to ensure they get the support they need, whether that's by coming back to the workplace immediately or continuing with remote work for a while. That need to be more flexible with remote work will be key for the future workforce.

Ninety one percent of U.K. workers have indicated that they would be happy to carry on with working at home. Some businesses, such as Twitter, have said that there's no need for workers to ever physically return to the office. Others have proposed new work patterns such as four days on, ten days off.

This becomes a once in a lifetime opportunity to personalise work, to truly adapt to the needs of employees and their diverse circumstances. Single parents who need more remote and home working

solutions. Disabled people who have difficulty commuting on public transit, especially during rush hour. The remaining question is whether employers will have such an inclusion lens at the forefront of their thinking as they make these decisions in the heat of the crisis, perhaps forgetting they will have lasting ramifications.

Considering inclusion when returning to work

Post COVID, we face a choice: a) forcing people back to work, possibly in a way that doesn't work for them, simply because they need the salary. Or b) allowing people to work in new ways that fit with their lives and create a more humane workplace and society for all of us.

This starts with the decisions that business leaders make right now:

-      Equity and equality are not the same - reach out to those who may be suffering more to sensitively reintegrate on their terms. A bit of care and empathy now will come back to you tenfold down the line. 

-      When doing even seemingly mundane tasks like scheduling and running meetings, consider the specific circumstances of the individuals on your team. Sure, your colleague could meet at 3:30 pm, or you could schedule for 4:30 after the school run is over and she can join virtually from home. 

-      Ensure safety and accessibility for all - offices are being physically refigured with PPE installed and new (one-way) routes, etc. But have you considered your entire workforce here, like wheelchair-users or neurodiverse staff? 

-      Make use of digital options - it has never been easier to adapt work to life through technology. The increase of video-conferencing software, shared documents, connectivity apps, and remote learning options means we can be more creative than ever in personalising how we work. 

In crisis lies opportunity - but only if we seize it. In the panicked state many employers and governments find themselves in it is too easy to just say, "we have bigger things to worry about right now." But there are many ways to accomplish the broader business goals and improve people's lives in parallel. Thinking inclusively at this juncture will improve the lives of so many, but also contribute to better business and better social outcomes for all of us.