Blog Post

Part II: Diversity & Inclusion Must Remain Front and Center in our COVID-19 World — D&I Lessons Learned

By Vanessa J. Weaver Ph.D. & Bob Schimmenti
May 19, 2020

On April 28th, Part I of this two-part series focused on the importance of retaining diversity and inclusion commitments in our workplaces in this unpredictable and shocking COVID-19 World.

There were two core premises of Part I:

The first was that COVID-19, has rocked our workplaces, impacting every aspect of our organization’s culture and operations. We are facing a new normal, that is truly organic, being shaped and defined as we go. Defining this new normal is a lane in which D&I practitioners play a critical role.

The second premise is that D&I will have a significant impact on leadership practices, the success of employee re-integration and how organizations reconnect with diverse groups of customers and redefine relationships with the global and local communities in which they operate.

Part II presents D&I lessons learned from a critically essential frontline organization, Con Edison. As background, Con Edison is New York City’s primary utility company that services 10 million customers.

Electric Operations, Con Edison’s largest division with over 4000 employees, is responsible for ensuring electricity is delivered to residences and businesses safely and reliably.

Their men and women literally keep the lights on in New York, which remains the epicenter of COVID-19. Electric Operations continues to provide reliable power to NYC and Westchester County customers, in addition to supply needed power for field hospitals and critical testing facilities.

New York’s doctors, nurses, and emergency responders couldn’t operate and meet the challenges of COVID-19, if Electric Operations diverse employees didn’t operate optimally as crews, teams, individuals, and leaders.

In full disclosure, my firm, Alignment Strategies partnered with Bob Schimmenti, Senior VP of Electric Operations and his entire 4000-person organization from 2016-2019, in a three-phased Inclusion and Engagement Initiative (I&E).

The focus on valuing and leveraging the diversity of each employee, team, unions and functional organizations, to drive more inclusion, operational effectiveness, innovation and enhance customer experience, initially was met with doubt and uncertainty.

Yet, Bob and his senior leadership team continued their focus on the end goal, which was to increase employee engagement, defined as discretionary effort, i.e. employees going beyond their core job requirements.

A key strategy was to empower its frontline managers and employees by increasing their inclusion in making important decisions in the field and driving innovation in operational effectiveness that directly impact safety, operational excellence and the customer experience.

A second strategy was to redefine leadership and instill a sense of accountability at every level, including at supervisor and union levels, frontline and essential employees. The intent was for everyone to share in the success of their teams and jointly own solving their challenges.

Electric Operations had already established the positive impact on its core indices and return on its I&E Initiative over three years.

The stats in the below image are just an example of the ROI.

Clearly, this COVID-19 pandemic would test Electric Operations at its core and if its I&E Investment continued adding value during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I connected with Bob Schimmenti, curious about how their frontline, essential employees were utilizing I&E skills and tools during COVID-19.

One frontline manager shared important insight, as reflected in this quote:

“A little over a month ago, just as our pandemic responses were really ramping up, I gave the safety message on Manhattan’s morning call and encouraged people to lean on those safety leadership and I&E tools to help us navigate this difficult time….the Qualities of a Safety Leader and the elements of employee engagement gave us the tools in our toolbox that have helped us overcome many challenges during the pandemic.”. [Memo: April 27,2020 from Michael Corrente/Section Manager].

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Electric Operations had already established the positive impact on its core indices and return on its I&E Initiative over three years
Alignment Strategies

There are other success metrics that underscore how investing in engaged employee teams and an inclusive culture is paying off for Electric Operations and benefitting employees and customers during this pandemic.

For example, given the contagious reality of COVID-19, it would be reasonable to expect an increase in absenteeism for frontline, essential team members.

Despite the increased absentee rate, the field teams focused on practicing social distancing, established new work shifts and satellite work locations to remain separated, and focused on critical work to serve their community and their customers.

Typically, a pandemic of this nature would cause employee distractions and lack of attention to safety protocols, resulting in accidents or worse, serious injury or death.

Safety incidents over the last three months (March-May) are down and injuries have been cut in half compared to the same period a year ago, pre-COVID-19.

Gallup indicated that a key attribute of an engaged workplace, is that employees KNOW they have the resources, tools, and equipment to do their jobs.

Inattention to employee safety and the absence of the right equipment, as evidenced by the lack of adequate personal protection equipment (PPE) for New York healthcare professionals and other essential employees like janitors, registration clerks and security personnel, clearly impacted morale, safety and unfortunately resulted in deaths.

Electric Operations, instituted practices such as work from home options, satellite work locations, instructions on good hygiene, extra vehicles for crew separation, and deep cleaning methods to ensure the safety of their teams and of the public.

Leadership and operating practices at every level have been impacted by COVID-19.

I asked Bob Schimmenti to share leadership observations from his team and he shared the following quote from one of his mid-level managers:

“…the overall I&E and Safety Leadership efforts over the past few years have created a culture with more two-way conversations, willingness to discuss issues, and more advanced emotional intelligence. The removal of some of these communication barriers and frictions has allowed ideas to flow more freely, changes to be implemented more quickly, and anxiety in the workplace to be minimized.”

Bob then shared some leadership traits he has observed at all levels in his organization that continue to be game changers. The following observations are in Bob’s own words:

*”As an operational leader for over 32 years in the utility business I have observed our employees respond to unimaginable situations. Significant events such as 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy come to mind as defining moments. They remind us of how important our work is and how the community looks to us as a calming influence and “beacon of light” during very difficult times.

In our response to COVID-19 the public has looked at us the same way, yet our approach is markedly different. We are naturally driven to be connected and together, and with the need to social distance we still have to do our jobs but be more separated. But separated does not mean disconnected. The first line teams had to become more local and independent. The previous skills developed on inclusion and engagement have been instrumental during the most difficult times where anxiety levels were at its highest.

We have been in a multi-year movement to focus on Diversity and Inclusion initiatives where employee engagement and value and respect for each other has laid the foundation for collaboration, alignment, and trust. The training and structured approach in this most important area had been the key ingredient for our response to this Pandemic and it truly has been our finest hour.”*

Here are some leadership traits that have been observed at all levels throughout this unique response:

Compassion: As anxiety levels ebb and flow it is essential that leaders connect to their employees with an understanding, demonstrating care and concern for employee well-being. Leaders with high emotional intelligence have been key to keeping teams safe, focused, and aligned.

Humility: One unique difference here is that we are going through similar feelings and emotions. The higher you are on the corporate hierarchy does not give you immunity to the impact of COVID-19. We are all concerned about our families and are experiencing similar impacts. It is perfectly fine and recommended that leaders share their feelings and concerns. That is not weakness but rather an opportunity to connect and demonstrate how you can relate. It builds alignment and teamwork that is critical during difficult times.

Visibility: While the need to practice social distancing is imperative in keeping people safe, leaders need to be visibly present and connected to their teams. Being available to listen to employee concerns, offering support, and recognizing their efforts goes a long way in keeping teams focused and engaged.

Releasing Control: This has been an area of development in our Inclusion and Engagement learning process over the past few years. The ability to push responsibility down to those closest to the work and promoting ideation at the local level fosters employee engagement and enhanced performance. It had been evident during this response with teams working more remotely, use of staggered shifts, and satellite work locations that the building blocks of local ownership at the line level has been a successful leadership trait.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate: It goes without saying that during difficult times in an environment where information is changing rapidly, regular and frequent communication is necessary. It is also important to provide forums for employees to raise concerns, be part of the solution to those concerns, and leaders need to listen more than they might have in the past. It is also important to be comfortable saying you don’t know as information changes quickly during this response.

Sharing positive stories: With so much negative news circulating it is important to counter that with positive news, such as, an employee returning to work after being sick, a positive customer experience, or acknowledging important milestones like service anniversaries.

In addition, there are some things to avoid so as to keep teams focused and engaged:

Don’t downplay employee concerns: No matter how small of a concern, give it the needed attention, and practice dedicating more time to just listening. Leaders have been conditioned to be decisive but, in this case, be comfortable delegating solutions locally. Provide the support and resources quietly and have local teams execute on those items.

Don’t focus on work first and employee second: It is natural in any operational mobilization to get into a rhythm and focus on critical projects that are centered on risk reduction. It might be appropriate, but leaders need to budget more time to connect with their employees. Video conferencing is a good tool but not a substitute for physical presence or a phone call just to check on an employees’ well-being. Placing the employee connection first and foremost will support the needed work plans that are important and essential.

Our focus on diversity, inclusion, and employee engagement has been instrumental to our successful response to COVID-19. The linkages to a strong culture that supports diversity and inclusion which promotes enhanced business performance has never been more evident in our response to this pandemic.

Our contributions might seem small and invisible yet every act no matter how small, any act of support and kindness has added up exponentially. Providing heat, power, the ability to cook or clean clothes seems minor in its individual act, but it makes a big difference to the families and communities we serve. I have never been more proud of my employees.

D&I Initiatives focused on leveraging inclusion to increase employee engagement will become even more important as organizations prepare for re-entry and move to reshape their COVID-19 impacted cultures and daily operations.

Now is not the time to reduce and/or eliminate D&I efforts.

It is the time to be more strategic in identifying and prioritizing D&I efforts that add value in the current and post-COVID-19 reality.

Dr. Vanessa J. Weaver Biography

Dr. Vanessa J. Weaver is a DBP Solutions@ partner and CEO of Alignment Strategies.

Alignment Strategies is a consulting firm with over 30 years of expertise, focusing on leveraging DI&E to enhance business performance by increasing employee engagement and inclusion.

You can learn more about her on her website or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Robert [Bob] Schimmenti Biography

Robert [Bob] Schimmenti, a 32-year ConEdison employee, is Senior Vice-President of Electric Operations, the largest division within ConEdison.

Bob remains a strong advocate of leveraging Diversity, Inclusion and Engagement to enhance business performance, value and respect for every employee.

About the Author

Vanessa J. Weaver Ph.D. & Bob Schimmenti