Fostering inclusion in the virtual workplace
Recent years have witnessed an increased focus on workplace equity, inclusion and diversity. More and more data-backed research now shows that a workplace, either in-office or virtual, cannot continue to thrive if it is not “humanized”.
The recent McKinsey Diversity Wins Report establishes that companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity on executive teams were 25% and 36%, more likely to achieve above-average profitability.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on how organizations approached their I&D programs. The focus and attention for most of 2020 was towards business continuity planning and moving to a work from home model. A pulse survey of I&D leaders, conducted by McKinsey, found that 27 percent of organizations had put all or most I&D initiatives on hold on account of the pandemic.
Diversity without inclusion is exclusion
By enforcing a remote and location-agnostic work model, the pandemic offered an opportunity for organizations to build and cultivate talent from a diverse workforce. However, these varied groups continue to grapple with the aspect of inclusion, a common yet massive challenge especially in the remote workplace.
Inadequate inclusion strategies in a remote working scenario could not only lead to diminished productivity and work inefficiencies, but also discontent and disconnect amongst talent. Hence, while organizations have been working towards building a diversified workforce, inclusion remains an elusive goal in the virtual workplace.
Inclusion is essential in times of remote working
The work culture in India is predominantly rooted in developing family-like connections; nurturing open communications; making mutual concessions; and sporting a “having one’s back” attitude. Cultivating relationships and rapports is encouraged to create a friendly, positive work environment to ensure higher productivity and employee engagement.
However, with the workplace taking on a virtual avatar, the lack of face-to-face personal interactions is adding to the widening chasm of inclusion.
While personal interactions have been impacted due to remote working, operating from one’s personal space has also led to concerns of being appraised by one’s private surroundings; co-workers forming opinions about one another due to a peek into one’s personal space during video conferencing calls; and such, leading to conscious or unconscious biases.
Lastly, even as remote working has given rise for women to enter or reconnect with the corporate world, the blended office-home space has created a bigger challenge for them to strike a work-life balance while juggling responsibilities at home with those at work.
Leading with inclusion in a remote environment – get the culture right!
In order to develop and maintain inclusion in a remote work environment, it is imperative to work towards building a strong corporate culture. This requires sustained efforts especially from the top leadership and influencers within the organization. Some of the methods that leaders and managers can adopt are:
Engendering trust, deep connections and a sense of belonging: The right organization culture engenders mutual trust. Employees who are truly invested in the values and mission of a company will always deliver more than what is expected of them, regardless of their location of work.
This kind of commitment comes from a deep sense of belonging and a feeling of being genuinely cared for. It enables one and all to bring the best of their potential to the table, where they feel safe, accepted, respected and appreciated as individuals.
While in a traditional work environment, leaders can engage with employees through face-to-face interactions or catch-ups at office-sponsored social events, bringing that kind of connectivity in a remote environment requires different tactics.
Sharing personal anecdotes or experiences during one’s journey in the organization, allocating certain time each week to virtually connect with each individual to find out about their physical and emotional well-being, encouraging them to share their thoughts, concerns and help them get past those, are some of the ways in which leaders can show empathy and create a more engaged and satisfied workforce.
Incorporate tenants of servant leadership into the organizational culture. Here, the main goal of the leader is to serve as opposed to traditional leadership where the leader's only focus is business success and continuity.
As this approach empowers employees by putting them first, it also presents a good way to foster trust and build a scaffolding for engagement and inclusion. Servant leaders create new possibilities by putting people ahead of power and ambition.
Demonstrate I&D at the top via a diverse leadership team: An ecosystem that encourages having women and people from diverse groups, backgrounds and communities in leadership roles, as company spokespersons and even in interview panels, creates a sense of confidence and acceptance across diversified teams and potential talent.
Further, for employee buy-in and long-term sustainability of people at entry-or mid-level, it is important that leaders role model the right stance via the requisite skills, competencies or behaviours required in a remote workforce. It is important for leaders to develop a more personable style.
Operating without bias and with self-awareness: Dealing with conscious and unconscious biases begins with having strong self-awareness as well as acceptance of the fact that each individual is unique and must be treated with equal respect.
Therefore, educating and spreading awareness from top to bottom about inclusion and diversity through learning and development programmes, trainings, etc., plays a pivotal role in dealing with biases. Mindfully observing judgements can help in the release of judgements and propels operating without bias.
Inclusion is a continuous, evolving journey
Inclusion and diversity cannot be achieved merely by establishing a task force. It is, in fact, a vision that can be achieved through an individual and collective pledge to check biases, start meaningful conversations, lead by words and action, and nurture a deep commitment towards bringing positive changes within the work culture.
The journey in fact starts with each one of us, especially as many of us continue to work remotely. I am reminded of a quote by Rumi “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”