When the history books are written on 2020, we’ll remember it as the year of Covid-19 and virtual work, and the year in which many organizations increased their commitment to fighting racism and building inclusive organizations.
It is important for leaders to consider how those two history-shaping events are interacting and influencing each other. We’re all familiar with the disparities and potential solutions surrounding race and healthcare due to the coronavirus pandemic. But what about business? Now that so many knowledge workers are working from home, what does that mean for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)? Does it help, or does it hurt?
“The truth is, we don’t yet know,” says DEI expert Dr. Salwa Rahim-Dillard, founder of the consulting firm, Equision. “We do know that diversity representation can be intentionally improved in this environment and in the future. Companies that allow employees to work virtually post-Covid, are likely to be able to hire diverse talent from a wider pool—outside of their geographic area. This alone could help create a more diverse organization, but, the bigger issue is how do you build a genuine culture of inclusion.”
Rahim-Dillard describes inclusion as “a feeling of belonging and having value for being your full, diverse and authentic self.” It requires: 1) that you feel you belong; 2) that you are valued; and 3) that you can be your true self at work.
To really understand the intersection of virtual teams and inclusion, it is important to ask, does it change people’s feelings of belonging, of being valued, and of being their authentic self? Below we explore each of those aspects of inclusion with a focus on virtual teams; then we offer tips for leaders who want to create inclusion while working remotely.
Virtual teams and belonging
For team members who appreciate the social scene of a face-to-face office, moving to fully remote work can be isolating. “People were very comfortable doing their work from home, but social isolation was starting to take a toll,” NRG CEO Mauricio Gutierrez found after his company surveyed their workforce. This sense of isolation decreases the feeling of belonging for many team members.
On the other hand, in a virtual environment, people often experience fewer incidents that make them feel excluded. Imagine that pre-Covid, you frequently saw one colleague getting more attention and visibility from the boss. During their daily Starbucks walks and lunch conversations you perceived their bond growing and felt a sense of being excluded and marginalized into the organizational “out-group.” In the virtual environment, people tend to witness fewer inequitable interactions and exclusionary behaviors. Ultimately, this helps them feel a greater sense of inclusion and belonging, says Rahim-Dillard
Virtual teams and being valued
Belonging isn’t enough; a truly inclusive environment helps people feel valued and respected for what they contribute and for who they are.
For example, work-from-home arrangements can be more valuing of people with disabilities and working parents, who find the flexibility of working from home more accommodating to their needs. Rahim-Dillard explains: “If during Covid and after Covid companies create flexible work policies and provide additional accommodations like standing desks, ergonomic chairs, headsets, and multiple monitors, then their efforts can help to build inclusion.”
But working remotely might create a sense of inclusion in other ways. Video conference calls can minimize obvious signs of power and hierarchy (such as the boss taking the seat at the head of the table). And without the symbolic corner office that highlights who is in charge, marginalized voices may feel empowered to speak, causing a gradual mindset shift that values and encourages diversity and equity.
Virtual teams and authentic selves
Finally, inclusion requires making it safe for people to be their authentic selves, without needing to mask or cover aspects of their identity. Frequently, diverse employees feel forced to conceal parts of their identity in order to avoid making others uncomfortable, to be included, and to have equitable opportunities for success.
Video conferencing may complicate how much of themselves people reveal. For example, one individual we know had a family photo visible in the background of a recent video call. The photo was of the man, along with his husband and their children. He had not previously spoken openly to the group about his same-sex marriage.
“Seeing a home on a webcam gives you a chance to peer into people’s lives, which some team members might find uncomfortable or inadvertently revealing,” says Rahim-Dillard. In some ways, our homes do reveal our authentic selves. The question is, are we ready to reveal that side of ourselves to our colleagues?
Creating more belonging, valuing, and authenticity
While the jury is still out on whether virtual teams are, on average, good or bad for creating inclusion, there are steps you can take to increase your chances. “Feelings of belonging and inclusion are co-created among leaders and team members,” says Rahim-Dillard. “And leaders play a pivotal role in the process.”
Drawing from our newly released eBook on leading high-performing virtual teams, here we share several steps you can take to build an inclusive organization for diverse virtual teammates.
Foster psychological safety
Psychological safety is the shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. Leaders can be intentional about virtual interactions. They can also work on building trust to create psych safety.
For virtual team leaders, research points toward the importance of having empathy for your followers, in order to build trust. Leaders must put themselves into the shoes of their team members, especially those who are least like them, and take interest in the problems they may have in the course of their work.
Research shows it can be difficult to understand tone in email. Messages that are meant as positive are more often perceived as neutral, and neutral messages can be perceived as negative. This means leaders need to double down on supportive communication and positive tone. This may be especially important in communicating messages in support of diversity and inclusion, where an increase in positive messages demonstrate how the leader values the contributions of each team member.
Frequent positive interactions demonstrate care and concern, which amplify feelings of inclusion. “When you don’t have watercooler conversations happening naturally, you have to be very intentional in making sure care and concern is communicated,” says Rahim-Dillard.
Additionally, almost 60% of our communication comes from body language; in the virtual environment leaders and employees must be more intentional, direct, succinct, and respectful in how they articulate their thoughts. This is even more critical and nuanced when communicating across cultural differences.
Microaggressions are commonplace daily indignities experienced by culturally marginalized groups or individuals. An example is a white male colleague who talks over a female colleague. This may be more evident, and more egregious, when happening in person. Rahim-Dillard says to watch for patterns of occurrence on virtual calls. “Pause and remain unbothered. Genuinely seek to understand if the person talking over you is micro-aggressing or experiencing a virtual flub. Then respond accordingly.”
Integrate inclusive practices
Finally, to make sure team communication is collaborative and all voices can be heard, leaders can integrate intentionally inclusive practices in their meetings. Harvard scholar Dr. Amy Edmondson and her colleague Gene Daley suggest how to use features in Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, Skype, or other platforms to create a more inclusive and psychologically safe meeting.
High-performing virtual teams
Inclusive organizations are high-performing organizations. If you want to create a high-performing, high-engagement virtual team, we encourage you to learn more. Our new eBook offers evidence-based insight for what it takes to build a supportive virtual team that drives results.