Embracing technology, leading with empathy, elevating your emotional intelligence, and focusing on making meetings a place for connection can help your team members who work remotely feel more included and build an inclusive workplace.
In late November, the World Health Organization reported that a new coronavirus variant—Omicron— started to spread in southern Africa and some other countries. Also known as B.1.1.529, the new variant caused countries, including the United States, to restrict travel from people in parts of Africa.
President Biden previously mandated last September that employers with 100 or more workers must make sure employees are fully vaccinated. Those without vaccinations will have to undergo weekly testing. Lawsuits were filed over this mandate, and the courts put a hold on it.
Workers have been resistant to returning to the office. Surveys showed that people would rather quit than go back to an office. And many did. They’ve cited childcare issues, public schools closings, mental health issues, the danger of commuting into a hotspot, walking crowded streets and being in close proximity to other people.
Further, it’s been proven that employees were highly productive working from home. Studies show that remote workers put in longer hours well into the night and weekends, and many companies fared well. With new waves on spread, we could be gearing up for additional round of WFH — which is inevitably leading to permanently hybrid teams.
As your team becomes more distributed, here are four things you can do to remove any remote work inequities and build an inclusive workplace.
Build an Inclusive Workplace through Meeting Connection
PWC’s Remote Work survey found that employees and employers alike prize aspects of virtual work, such as flexibility, as well as the office experience, such as in-person collaboration. Ideally, a hybrid work environment can offer the best of both worlds.
But hybrid environments also carry the real risk of bias in favor of those who are physically working on site — and stigmatize those who are working remotely. As physical offices re-open, employees who come back to offices and prioritize in-person interactions could end up having an edge over others who remain working from home, either by choice or circumstances.
It’s a subconscious bias that can lead to managers or other decision makers offering better opportunities to the people they see, rather than the employees on the phone or video. That said, meetings are a prime opportunity to level the playing field to build an inclusive workplace.
Here’s a short but high-impact list of some of the most effective ways you can start fostering a more inclusive approach to conducting meetings:
- Prep and send your agenda ahead of time: If you’re organizing a meeting, provide your meeting agenda one day ahead of time. By sending out an agenda in advance, you’re designing a more inclusive meeting.
- Be accessible: Some video conferencing solutions offer live closed captions, which appear as someone speaks, for users who are deaf or hard of hearing. There is also video meeting software available for people who are blind/have low vision and use screen readers that turn text, images, and other elements into audio or braille. Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and BlueJeans all offer live closed captions that are created by artificial intelligence. Zoom offers live closed captioning if you type them in yourself or use a third-party service. All of these programs are also screen reader accessible.
- Leverage all of the different features your video platform to make it easier for everyone to contribute. For example, the hand raise feature can allow someone to signal when they have something to say, which can be useful for people who don’t like to interject.
- Break groups up so that people who have trouble speaking in larger settings have a chance to contribute ideas with just a few colleagues. For instance, if you’re having the team brainstorm for an upcoming project, you could split them up into smaller breakout groups for a set period of time. Then have a rep from each group report back with the ideas.
- The private chat function is also helpful for managers to help people who have trouble thinking on the spot. Rather than calling on someone without warning, chat them and let them know you’d like them to share XYZ in a few minutes. This will help them prepare, and they can also alert you if they need more time. As a meeting attendee, you can also use the chat feature to encourage a fellow colleague to share an important idea.
- Gather feedback: You could also deploy a survey that covers video meeting inclusivity. Afterwards, disaggregate the data to look at race, gender, and other demographics. You might find larger quantities of feedback from particular groups, such as women of color or those who identify as LGBTQ+, common feedback themes or specific issues among particular identities on your team.
Build an Inclusive Workplace with Technology
Counter to the idea that technology creates distance and isn’t people-centric, technology is helping companies build an inclusive workplace.
In the coming year, companies will continue to rely on software solutions to improve engagement and company culture. In a report by the software marketplace, G2, more than half of decision makers expected their software spending to increase this year, according to a report from software marketplace G2. The company consulted 756 decision makers with responsibility for, or influence over, purchase decisions. Our list of top tools to build an inclusive workplace for hybrid teams includes:
1. Team Chat Apps
While everyone has access to email and text messaging, businesses need to provide a special venue for spontaneous and seamless communications. Team chat software tools offer improved communication for everyone on your team. The best tools in this category allow for impromptu conversations and the ability to share messages, ideas, documents and videos.
2. Remote Desktop Software
Employees working at home might occasionally run into problems that only IT professionals can solve. It is much easier, efficient and cost-effective for IT team members to access desktops via remote software tools than visit employees’ homes for quick troubleshooting.
3. Video Conferencing Tools
Over the past few years, video conferencing tools have become increasingly popular, helping businesses connect with remote-based and traveling workers. The remote revolution spurred by COVID-19 has brought even more businesses into the video conferencing mix. Business leaders have discovered that video conferencing tools enhance engagement, increase productivity, provide clarification in collaboration, and lower communication costs.
4. Project Management Apps
Project management apps are effective tools for in-house work as well as remote work. The best project management tools allow for improved communications and collaboration, better scheduling to keep the project on track, enhanced communication with clients, easier task delegation, standardized processes, and streamlined budget management.
5. Screen-Recording Software
Screen-recording software has become an invaluable tool for employees in various contexts. For employees working in customer contact centers, screen recording instantly provides a record of every chat session with customers to help ensure quality service. Employees working collaboratively can share snapshots of online research material snippets to get to the point of an article quickly and carry on the discussion.
6. Screen-Sharing Tools
Screen-sharing tools work in conjunction with several tools listed. Your employees can take screen recordings with screen-sharing capabilities and share them with colleagues and management in chat app sessions, video conferences, and direct communications via email and text.
7. Cloud Storage Services
Cloud storage services help employees maintain more control over their off-site work environment, managing documents and files with more support and ease. Since employees are often responsible to help ensure data is secure and accessible, cloud storage benefits have become invaluable remote work tools.
8. To-Do List Tools
Most of your employees have repetitive daily tasks or steps to complete multifaceted processes that can get lost in the mix without special attention. It’s easy to get distracted in any circumstance — but especially when working remotely. To-do list tools can provide prompts and reminders to keep employees on track.
9. Wellbeing Apps
Many companies interested in improving employee retention are focusing on workplace wellness. Why? Because improved health and wellness leads to increased productivity, better employee focus, and company health care savings. Regardless of whether or not your company has an official wellness program, you can still take steps toward healthier habits during your workday. Here are 7 seven wellness apps to consider providing for your team.
10. Security Tools
No matter how diligent your employees are about peak home security, they might need improved security tools — especially working with your organization’s confidential documents. Key security tools to consider include a VPN, PC threat monitoring, and secure file-sharing and cloud collaboration.
11. Brainstorming and Mind-Mapping Tools
You don’t want to lose your team’s brainstorming momentum because nearly everyone is working remotely. With online whiteboards and mind-mapping tools, your team can virtually maintain the collaborative nature of brainstorming.
12. Emotional Intelligence Tools to Build an Inclusive Workplace
What most of these technologies do is connect devices and teams, but they do not build the person-to-person connection. And when your team is hybrid, one of the most important critical components for a team’s wellbeing and productivity is a sense of belonging and inclusion. To fast-track building an inclusive workplace, consider elevating your team’s emotional intelligence. Let’s explore that in a deeper dive.
Lead with Empathy
As a leader of remote employees or distributed teams, you set the example. In any team, remote or not, it is crucial to be mindful and considerate of your colleagues as whole people. While this may sound simple, we’re often not great at considering things outside our immediate range of experience. Here’s what you can do foster this in your team:
Opportunities for improving your empathy muscles to build an inclusive workplace:
- Create regular virtual opportunities for your team to meet, both formally and informally, and encourage them to share more about themselves, their families and personal interests. As a team, create and nurture an environment where it is encouraged to express a more personal side of yourself. More social communication of this kind is related to higher levels of trust in remote teams.
- Ask questions…demonstrate that you have listened and that you care by asking questions because you want to learn more. In addition to asking the other person questions, ask yourself questions like, “How would I feel or what would I do in this situation?
- Assume positive intent. Remote work and the endless flood of information and online communication can easily lead to misunderstandings, turning what was supposed to be fast and easy communication into a source of frustration. Assuming negative intentions where there are none will soon crush a team’s dynamic. Developing your empathy skills will help you escape these negative emotions and work towards better collaboration.
- Listen more. Encourage open communication between yourself and your remote team and its members, and focus on listening to what your employees are saying — not just waiting to speak. To be empathetic, you have to key in on what the other person is saying, both nonverbally and verbally. Emotions can be seen and heard. You can pick up on feelings based on what the other person says and how they say it, including their tone. Take this example shared by Founder & CEO of Gravity Payments, Dan Price. He recounts a life-changing interaction shared between him and one of his employees. And he says his biggest lesson was to listen to his employees.
- Identify and challenge your biases. We are all biased. People tend to approach situations with preconceived notions. It helps people feel prepared for situations. It helps people to feel in control and more comfortable. But preconceived notions, assumptions. or biases make it difficult to listen fully. Work on identifying them and challenging these biases to improve empathy and become more inclusive of different perspectives.
- Develop a safe space to build an inclusive workplace. The highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety — the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behavior that lead to breakthroughs or innovations. So how can you increase psychological safety on your own team?
In the end, one of the easiest ways to practice empathy is to offer your support and tangible help. Sometimes, it is not enough to say, “I’m sorry to hear this.” Instead, say, “I’d like to help.” Or, “How can I support you?” Or, “What can I take off your plate?” Showing that you are willing to take time and energy to do something for someone else can go a long way to demonstrate you’re an empathetic leader. It shows that you are willing to invest your time in them.
Elevate EQ to Build an Inclusive Workplace
This is where emotional intelligence or EI/EQ comes into play too. Working well with others in hybrid or remote teams takes EQ. And while different experiences and interactions with others will help improve and strengthen your emotional intelligence, there’s also ways to fast-track EQ development.
One of the most impactful places to practice EQ is in meetings. Encourage all meeting participants — where in-office or at home — to dial into the meeting so the playing ground feels level. To then optimize your team meetings, use a simple and easily integrated plug-in. You and the rest of your meeting team will have the kind of insights needed to make every moment of connection with the team valuable.
Imagine being able to click on meeting participants and see real-time tips and recommendations for communicating, motivating, and influencing them. Imagine seeing this same information in aggregate for your meeting group. Know who best to tap on for pre- or post-meeting action items, for helping lead the meeting, and who might benefit from a heads up on certain agenda items — all of which takes into account your meeting team’s culture insights in an easy-to-understand way.
Empathy and EQ in the workplace allows employees to better understand each other. When employees understand each other, they can better work together, and teams can be effective and productive. Leaders have the ability to empathize, and by empathizing they inspire others to be caring, and that trickles down. The result: you’ll build an inclusive workplace that is more engaged and productive.