Necessity was always credited as the mother of invention, but crisis is a powerful catalyst too.
Black Lives Matter has amplified employees’ calls for action on racism, and organisations are keen to respond swiftly and appropriately – but they’re not always sure how to get it ‘right’. When you factor in lockdown, the challenge gets harder still. The current restrictions mean it’s more difficult to get your people together to communicate a single broadcast message, visibility of diverse people is sometimes harder to achieve across digital channels, and meaningful conversation about difficult topics is usually done better face to face.
"Employee feedback may be watered down or sanitised, but black people’s descriptions of overt and covert racism have been hugely impactful in educating others about the reality of race in our society".
There are opportunities to change culture for the better, however, even during these tricky times. Here are just some of the ways you can foster a more inclusive culture with workers who are remote and working virtually.
How to foster virtual inclusivity at work
Listen carefully and regularly
There’s an old joke that the Queen thinks the world smells of fresh paint because spaces are always spruced up before her visits. Leaders in large organisations are often shown things through a similarly distorted lens. Employee feedback may be watered down or sanitised, but black people’s descriptions of overt and covert racism have been hugely impactful in educating others about the reality of race in our society. They don’t make for comfortable listening but they evoke deep empathy that makes it very hard not to take action.
As an IC or HR professional, it’s your role to make sure leaders and decision-makers hear the truth. No one knows the skeletons in your closet better than your employees, so to ignore their voices and their experiences is to give permission for any poor behaviour to continue unchecked.
Use the channels you have to gather as many real-life stories as you can – from comments on Yammer posts, to polls on your intranet, pulse surveys over email to drop-in feedback sessions. The digital world gives you access to feedback like never before.
Pass the mic
Your leaders are influential role models in your organisation – people look to them to set the tone and, in doing so, they are ultimately responsible for your culture. Unfortunately, diverse representation at senior leader level is still low. As influential as they are, white leaders are not the voices people necessarily want to hear right now. So how can you turn up the volume on diverse voices instead?
One technique is to partner members of your board with chairs of your employee resources groups. As a senior sponsor, they can share their platform by co-authoring blogs or co-hosting virtual panel discussions. This is a fantastic learning opportunity for both individuals too, with mentoring and learning flowing in both directions.
Another technique is to establish a ‘shadow board’ – a diverse panel of employees empowered to review and give feedback on projects, messages and products before they are presented to the board. It’s a way to put diversity of thought into action.
For office-based workers, culture is an amalgamation of the things they see and hear around them every day. Remote workers perceive culture to be the big-ticket decisions and actions taken by the organisation over the course of their career there. So right now the design of your canteen or the swanky gym facilities aren’t contributing anything to your culture. Without social spaces in which to mingle and meet, people are spending more time with the same people in the same virtual spaces.
It’s therefore important to introduce cultural markers and moments to indicate how inclusive your culture is.
Markers might include:
- Adding your pronouns to your screen name in team meetings.
- Declaring yourself an ally to diverse individuals through your email footer or profile picture.
- Using an email signature containing a phrase like: ‘I’m working out of usual hours because it suits me, but I don’t expect you to respond until your usual working hours’.
- Continuing to wear a lanyard or badge – visible on camera – that shows the causes you support.
Moments might include:
- Virtual screenings – where people watch a TED Talk or hear a guest speak on a topic related to diversity, then attend a virtual discussion forum where they can share opinions or ask questions in a safe space.
- Monthly coffee mornings – where a leader hosts an event with a cross-section of between 10 and 20 people who may not have met before. Everyone answers the same question and gets to know people in new ways. Questions might include: ‘what have you learned about yourself during lockdown’ or ‘what do you consider to be your superpower, and how did you gain it?’
Nobody gets left behind
As the old saying goes, ‘diversity is getting an invite to the party, inclusivity is being asked to dance’. The parties we’re getting invited to these days are happening on Teams, Zoom and BlueJeans, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make sure everyone has the chance to dance.
These ideas are the tip of the inclusion iceberg. Whatever you do, the most important message to communicate is that no one should be a silent bystander. Checking in with your colleagues and calling out negative behaviour if it arises is essential. It’s only by reaching out and speaking up that enough individuals can come together to change a culture.
About the author
Perry Timms is the Founder & Chief Energy Officer of PTHR, with 30+ yrs experience in people, learning, technology, organisation change & transformation. His personal mission is to see more people flourish through their work, and help shift organizations as a force for societal good (not just profit machines). PTHR's mission is defined as "Better Business for a Better World". In October 2017, his first book, Transformational HR - was published by Kogan Page and the Energized Workplace published in August 2020. He was an extremely proud new entrant to the list of HR Most Influential Thinkers for 2017 and again in 2018 + 2019 (in the top 10 both years).