Working from home has become commonplace. This and other dramatic workplace changes introduced in response to COVID-19 have made employee productivity and engagement a greater priority for many employers. Boosting these factors in a remote environment can be challenging, but the key is to develop practices that foster inclusion. And since working from home could become permanent for some employees in this “new normal”, organizations should not miss this opportunity to introduce new habits for the inclusion of all persons.
In my research on diversity and inclusion, I found a “sense of belonging” to be the crucial factor. This element directly affects a person’s workplace commitment, motivation, pride, and performance. Belonging is about creating a place where people feel they are respected, connected, and included. Regardless of a person’s age, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, the research suggests that a focus on belonging is the most helpful way to build inclusion in the workplace. But with the focus on distance for health-related reasons, how are employers supposed to make employees feel a sense of belonging?
During times of crisis, the focus on inclusion is ever more critical. Stresses from COVID-19 and extended isolation are driving a range of negative emotions in employees. On top of that, recent prominent examples of racial injustice and political decisions have affected many employees in ways that cannot be left behind when work begins. But addressing inclusion during these unprecedented times is not at all straightforward. For instance, individuals can have mixed views on how inclusive their workplace is. Employees may feel that their employer’s overall environment is generally not inclusive, but their personal experiences may reflect inclusion based on frequent interactions with their team and immediate supervisors.
Accordingly, an inclusive environment cannot be achieved solely through systemic efforts. It is created in equal part by the behavior of individuals (leaders and peers) who make conscious inclusion a daily practice. Intentional effort and consistency play critical roles in supporting employees and ensuring they can continue to make meaningful contributions to the team. Consider the following tactics:
- Show empathy. Team members should feel comfortable being open and vulnerable, sharing more of themselves, and learning how to better support others. Leaders cannot effectively advocate for someone without understanding what they are facing. Acknowledge difficult situations, ask questions, and create space for people to share openly how they are feeling and what they need.
- Encourage participation. Leaders should establish direct communication with workers, make a point to draw them into team discussions, and ensure that team members have an equal opportunity to contribute in virtual meetings. Leaders also need to be aware of their team members’ different communication styles.
- Create structured team building and networking. It’s important to create space for connection as a substitute for in-person, impromptu engagement in onsite office settings. Leaders should work with teams to simulate social interactions that encourage connection. Suggestions may include virtual coffee chats, happy hours, team celebrations, and digital recognition which are all relatively easy ways to encourage a group of any size to convene and bond with one another. Be sure to include ideas across the group to develop a diverse set of virtual team events. Leaders should also facilitate connections across the team and overcome the tendency to be drawn to the team members they already know.
- Build space for diverse perspectives. Leaders should harness the power of their teams’ diverse perspectives to enhance performance. To ensure team members have an equal opportunity to contribute in virtual meetings, leaders should prevent meeting attendees from defaulting to observer mode. This is also an opportunity for all experienced team members to engage in onboarding new employees as we all learn differently and explain perspectives differently, allowing for broader knowledge and insight.
- Be intentional about developing all employees. The number one quality of an inclusive leader is supporting team growth. At this time, most are being asked to do more with less, and the challenge is providing mentoring and development in an environment where rewards may be hard-pressed. It’s also easier for development opportunities to go to the “trusted few” in the leader’s immediate network. Leaders should make sure that underrepresented talent is on the call list when any of these opportunities and projects open up and a succession plan is in place. Leaders should also schedule regular one-on-one check-ins to discuss individual team members’ goals, interests, and professional development ideas.
- Reevaluate inclusion efforts. Managers and HR should reassess how the organization can further support inclusion during this time. Benefits, work-from-home resources, and other offerings should be reviewed to ensure they continue to accommodate employees with diverse needs. Working parents, employees with caregiving responsibilities, sick employees, quarantined employees, employees with disabilities, and other talent segments may require new or different support as they work from home. Open communication with team members is a win-win for the company and the employee.
These inclusive practices not only make leaders more effective, but also unlock the potential of teams and organizations. Achieving these goals, however, requires thoughtful and intentional action. Without targeted intervention, non-inclusive office dynamics could potentially be amplified in a remote environment. This is especially true for employees who already felt “excluded” on their team. Ensuring that employees feel connected to each other and the business as well as cared for by their employer is critical to retaining top talent and achieving greater productivity.
Ultimately, everyone in an organization contributes to building a more inclusive and effective working environment. People will be remembered for how they act and treat others during this time. Individuals and organizations that get it right will have an advantage regardless of what the future holds. This is for the record.
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