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Committed to Equity and Inclusion in HR? Change These Two Policies. If an organization seeks to retain an engaged workforce, an equitable approach to re-entering the workplace is required.

By Nika White Edited by Maria Bailey

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As many employees start returning to the office, HR departments should be thinking about how to keep equity and inclusion at the forefront of the transition.

Employees have extended their work-from-home requests citing a myriad of reasons related to family, health, and work-life balance. It's not that employees don't want to return to work; many employees' circumstances have changed.

Maybe they had a baby, or they're caring full-time for an older loved one. Or perhaps they managed to find the sweet spot between caring for themselves and caring about work. Whatever is going on in an employee's life, employers can take a proactive approach toward equity and inclusion by being flexible about their return to office (RTO) and leave policies.

The goal of using a more equitable and inclusive lens is to maintain these workers in the long run and provide balance and stability even when the world around us feels shaky. It's about acknowledging that unhappy, underappreciated employees often don't thrive in the workplace. Cultivating inclusion and equity is the way to build a business that stands the test of time.

Here are a few ways to reimagine your return to the office and personal leave policies:

Customized and flexible re-entry

It's RTO-o'clock, and many employees are feeling the sting of having to pick up where they left off in 2020 and pretend like everything hasn't changed. The truth is, it has. Everything has changed, and employers should be prepared for certain employees to ask for flexible RTO or customize their in-office schedules.

During the pandemic, how many employees had children? How many suddenly had a parental figure become ill and needed to be attended to? How many decided to go back to school or earn another degree while working remotely? All of these circumstances could use flexible re-entry. The goal isn't to bend over backward for any and all employee needs. Instead, the goal is to understand what circumstances have changed over the past two years and how employee needs have evolved in the workplace.

Related: The Typical Human Resources Policy for Family Death Leave

Conversations about RTO

With a hiring slump already here, retention is better than rehiring. Offer employees whose life circumstances have changed and who cannot return fully to the office the opportunity to continue working from home for a period of time. Perhaps they can stay fully remote for a few more months, or return once or twice a week, or maybe decide on another arrangement that feels fair to both parties. Remember, this is a negotiation, not an ultimatum. Engage in a genuine conversation with employees and find a compromise.

The same goes for employees who are just not ready to RTO. Perhaps they fell in love with remote work as your business is asking them to return full-time. Would you rather have an employee return one or two days a week as a compromise or have them leave for a company that would happily let them work remotely?

According to Linkedin, remote work skyrocketed on their internal site with a 60% increase in remote job searches and a 2.3x increase in remote job applications since March 2020. Many people no longer wish to be in the office several times a week. Some people want more balance between their personal and professional lives. Businesses should be flexible with employees who may be struggling to find an interest to RTO after realizing they're happier and have improved work-life balance while remote.

Related: Hybrid Work Could Affect Your Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Goals. Here's How to Prepare for That

Trust issues around remote work

Many business leaders resist the idea of a fully remote workforce. There's a belief that remote workers won't do the job without the watchful eye and control of management. But this idea is built on a lack of trust. According to one survey, 77% of people working remotely at least a few times a month reported higher productivity, while 30% said they accomplished more in less time. Remote workers aren't less productive while working from home and have proven over the last couple of years that they can be trusted to maintain productivity.

However, some leadership professionals are still unsure which employees to trust while working remotely. To cultivate more trust, management should look at their company accountability practices, management training and perhaps make a shift in the company culture. There are many solutions leadership can take to feel confident about employees working remotely. However, ignoring their employees' needs for job flexibility isn't advised.

Related: Here's How to Foster Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in a Remote-Work World

Extended parental leave, safe leave, flexible bereavement, and more

When it comes to leave policies, many employees find their employer to be a bit stingy. The average parental leave in the United States is three months, and that's usually reserved only for mothers. Most fathers get the not-so-nice end of the deal and often continue working despite having a newborn.

Fathers were part of the baby-making equation. Why don't they receive paid leave? I won't speculate on the historic and gender-based discrimination that's occurred over the decades to exclude fathers from parental leave policies. I will, however, move us into the twenty-first century to rethink how leave could work for employees in this day and age.

Related: 4 Ways to Encourage Employees to Return to the Office

Flexible parental leave

Let's say someone just had a baby. Perhaps the policy allows two months of maternal or paternal leave before the employee must return to the office. How about maintaining that policy but allowing new parents to work remotely for two or three months longer? It's not that the parent would be out of commission — instead, they could ease their way back to the workplace while still feeding, caring for, and keeping an eye on their newborn. Most parents miss the opportunity to continue bonding with their young children shortly after parental leave ends. If remote work is an option for your business, why not let new parents find their own flexibility and work-life balance at home?

Foster and adoptive parent leave

For parents who aren't able to physically conceive or prefer adoption or fostering, do they have parental leave options? They should. A parent is a parent regardless of where the child came from. If it takes them time and energy to support, feed, care for, and keep an eye on a newly born baby, they should have access to parental leave.

Related: 19 Companies and Industries With Radically Awesome Parental Leave Policies

Feminine health leave

What about women who are at the end of their child-rearing days or are experiencing physical impacts from their feminine health issues? Do they have feminine health leave? They should. Consider offering menstrual and menopause leave for women who are experiencing negative impacts at work as a consequence of their feminine health needs.

Safe leave

Has your business considered safe leave for people (of any gender) involved in an abusive relationship? People living in an abusive or unsafe situation may need to take time off work to get therapy, treatment, or find new housing. It can be perceived as unkind to ask employees experiencing this type of trauma to use their vacation or sick days to compensate for their circumstances. A special leave policy that allows employees to take what they need to seek safety and refuge is more than a good idea — it models equity, inclusion, and compassion.

Flexible bereavement leave

Thousands of people lose loved ones every year. However, the average bereavement leave in the United States is three to seven days. So, you're telling me that honoring the death of a loved one, attending their funeral, grieving their passing, and potentially moving their items only takes an individual three to seven business days? Plus, while grieving, employees may have to produce a death certificate for the loved one or show other proof of passing, which can be retraumatizing and challenging depending on the circumstances. The current methodology for bereavement can feel unfair, uncompassionate, and difficult for certain employees.

Businesses should consider flexible bereavement. This would allow employees to work from home for an extended period to grieve in privacy. It would also give them the flexibility to handle their loved one's estate and affairs without the pressure of having to be physically in the office during that challenging time.

Final thoughts

As we move into the post-pandemic era of business, the policies designed to manage and support employees should move forward, too. Businesses should reimagine the challenges employees face this year, not what they faced last year or years previous.

Businesses should be careful with the language of these policies — practice caution around who these policies are written for and how they might land with certain employees. Crafting gender-inclusive language that doesn't leave out trans or gender non-conforming people is one way to put an inclusivity and equity lens on your policies.

Reimagining our HR policies is an exercise that addresses the challenges that employees are facing right now and allows all parties to navigate them in the moment. Applying a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) lens to work policies can help employees maintain work-life balance and support retention.

Nika White

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

President & CEO

Dr. Nika White is a national authority and fearless advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion. As an award-winning management and leadership consultant, keynote speaker, published author and executive practitioner for DEI efforts across business, government, non-profit and education.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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