In 2021, every CHRO is lying awake at night worrying about two business priorities:
On one hand, moving from crisis to momentum means, for many companies, adapting from past ways of working in an office to a hybrid or virtual model. Getting this right is critical to getting back on track with growth and performance.
On the other hand, 2020 accelerated the movement of customers, employees, and other stakeholders demanding that every company be accountable in ensuring a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce. Done right, DE&I offers competitive advantages – and is simply the right thing to do.
While this may feel overwhelming, we have good news: Shifting to a hybrid working model will give you a head start in strengthening your inclusive workplace.
This shift in ways of working has leveled the playing field in many ways – enhancing flexibility, accessibility, and visibility for groups such as single parents, candidates with disabilities, and employees. It has also afforded organizations with the chance to tap into a more diverse talent pool by opening up opportunities to recruit from anywhere.
When we all shifted to virtual video conference meetings, our lack of real proximity made it difficult to show empathy and inclusivity. It was harder for introverted individuals or underrepresented groups to have a say. But many of your best people leaders are either trained – or ready to be trained – to facilitate in a way that makes every voice heard.
These types of challenges are very real and can hinder DE&I efforts, so it is vital for leaders to adapt their DE&I strategies to the current context of virtual working. Inclusive working doesn’t happen overnight, and by helping teams build new habits and behaviors, we can drive and sustain long-lasting change.
Here are five tips for adapting your DE&I priorities for a virtual or hybrid workplace:
1. DON’T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT WHAT PEOPLE NEED
In crisis-mode, it’s common to try and make quick decisions based on what we assume we know – but this often backfires. Last year, we saw many companies address various world issues by making an external statement. But if leadership is too quick to put out a response without having a pulse of what’s happening within their organization – and how their employees are directly affected – the message may come across as disingenuous. Testing assumptions by reaching out to employees, either directly or through channels such as Employee Resource Groups, will save leaders from implementing initiatives that are at best ineffective, and at worse, detrimental.
Leaders should also practice empathy, and ask their people how they are coping and what support they need. It’s important that employees feel they have a safe space to share. Whether it’s IT provision, more flexibility for childcare, or mental health support, it’s crucial to remember that different groups have different needs that must be considered.
2. PROACTIVELY CREATE OPPORTUNITIES TO CONNECT
The benefits of diversity and inclusion come from making connections, so it is no surprise that leaders need to prioritize communication and employee engagement. In the absence of “water cooler” conversations in the office, leaders must consciously create opportunities to connect with employees from across the organization. Leaders can create space for 1:1 conversations that are non-work related, and check-in on employees’ well-being by asking how to support those who may be experiencing digital fatigue or burnout. Be mindful of how often you’re asking employees to be on camera. Encourage employees to take walking calls and let them know it’s okay to stay off video.
Equip managers with the tools and information needed to drive connectivity within their teams too, like holding small group check-in conversations. Leaders should consistently ask for feedback on their initiatives and tailor solutions to that feedback.
3. ROLE MODEL INCLUSIVE VIRTUAL MEETINGS
A well-run meeting has the potential to alleviate inequalities, while a poorly-run meeting can amplify inequalities. Leaders have the chance to set the expectation for an inclusive meeting culture by leading by example. Say hello to attendees by name where possible to ensure they feel part of the meeting from the beginning, but don’t feel that you have to force everyone to speak. Instead, make sure there are alternative ways for everyone to comfortably share their opinion, like through the chat function. Be mindful of who is on the call and where they are located. What assumptions are you making that could exclude team members from the discussion? Think about the topics being discussed, whether work-related or personal, and ensure that the conversation doesn’t exclude one group over another.
Then, think about active facilitation and how it can also go a long way in creating an inclusive meeting. Leaders can take this role on themselves or ask willing participants to facilitate. Facilitators should proactively go back to people who have been interrupted, respond to comments made in the chat box, and keep an eye out for those with a virtual “raised hand.” Leaders should also make the most of the time and come ready to share ideas – always making sure to recognize the contributions that have been made.
4. SCALE-UP EXISTING VIRTUAL BEST PRACTICES
Identify areas of the organization that are using virtual work as an opportunity to foster a more inclusive work environment. Understand the actions they’re taking, share those insights, scale-up, and apply them to other parts of the organization where possible.
For example, where teams are using inclusive and collaborative technology like Miro, consider how this can be brought to other parts of the business. Leaders can drive accountability by sharing what’s working well with their team. Having a structure in place for sharing best practices ensures a consistent knowledge-sharing and problem-solving cadence. Try using dedicated channels, such as Workplace groups or SharePoint pages, for those inclusive best practices. This is also a great way for leaders to show appreciation and recognition to those who are role-modeling DE&I across the organization. Work that’s recognized will also get replicated!
5. BUILD A DE&I VIRTUAL NETWORK
Use the advantages of virtual working to build a wide-reaching network of DE&I champions that spans geographies and functions. Without the physical barriers of office walls, networks can be even more diverse, bringing fresh ideas to the table. Cross-functional and cross-regional networks will also help to surface any organization-wide DE&I opportunities, in addition to tackling local topics.
For example, your network of DE&I champions should meet on an ongoing basis to help leadership understand the nuanced needs of different groups when it comes to virtual working. This group can also test communications with different groups to ensure the messaging resonates. Leaders should empower and advocate for the network, as well as provide a platform to share their work. Extending the opportunity for passionate employees to take part in DE&I further drives inclusion and promotes ownership of DE&I at the front-line level, baking it into your organization’s DNA.
The time to act is now. And luckily, all of the changes from 2020 have already enabled leaders and organizations to be more adaptable and resilient. By realizing that the changing employee experience, virtual/hybrid working models, and DE&I are all connected, it will allow leaders to take a more holistic approach and make sure that it’s embedded throughout every facet of the organization.