For many of us in Australia, working from home – either for a few days a week or permanently – is shaping up as the preferred future of working.
There’s little doubt we expect to see a high degree of flexibility in how, when and if some workers return to the physical office.
What does this mean for efforts to create more diverse and inclusive workplace cultures? How do we keep inclusion front and centre when we’re leading a mix of co-located and remote team members?
Benefits of remote working.
Working from home has not only proven to have a productivity lift for many organisations, it has upturned some taken-for-granted norms that inhibited diversity and inclusion.
While after-work networking events, long working hours and regular business travel were once considered de rigeur for many business leaders, it has taken a pandemic to question their effectiveness and acknowledge their exclusionary impacts.
Online meetings and gatherings are typically more accessible for people with caring responsibilities, people with disabilities, and those outside of metropolitan areas.
When everyone is attending a remote meeting, it can help us hear a more diverse set of voices (when facilitated well). As Australian professional company director Dr Kirstin Ferguson writes in Forbes magazine this month, discussion dominators tend to be diminished and there’s a greater sense of equality among meeting attendees.
Many of us have also experienced more authentic conversations with colleagues, in part thanks to the informality of appearances from family members and pets, as well as enlightened organisations ramping up approaches to communication and employee health and wellbeing.
Of course, the working from home mandate has not been a diversity bonanza for everyone. The lack of social connection, lack of safety for those experiencing family violence, and challenges of balancing work and caring responsibilities during lockdowns are among some of the challenges experienced.
Notwithstanding these challenges, how do we continue the gains of virtual working as some people transition back to offices or onsite work?
Applying inclusive leadership to hybrid work cultures.
One thing that’s remained constant is the importance of inclusive leadership – for good decision-making, innovation, employee engagement and wellbeing. It’s potentially even more important now.
All leaders need to have the capability to manage flexible and diverse teams across multiple modes of work and locations. Leaders need to role-model practices that prioritise physical and psychologically safe workplaces. As the recent Male Champions of change report – Accelerating change on flexible ways of working – says, ‘A flexible mindset around work constructs – working hours, working weeks and workplaces – may help to drive faster business, economic, and social recovery from COVID-19.’
But, in practice, this isn’t always straightforward. For example, in a meeting where some people are in a room and others on video, it takes more effort to facilitate an inclusive meeting than when everyone is remote or when everyone is in the same room. (You know the scenario: two people are having a conversation in the room, you’re on video and can’t quite hear what’s being said or see their facial expressions, so you feel a bit left out.)
Here’s a few practical actions leaders can take to support inclusion for everyone – or, at the very least, reduce opportunities for unintentional exclusion in hybrid work cultures. (Some of these will be familiar to leaders who have worked in global matrix reporting organisations, where remote meetings have long been part of the cultural fabric.)
- Ensure both virtual and in-person attendance options are available for all meetings.
- Limit the side conversations of those in the physical office and those in online chat rooms (it’s off-putting when there’s an in-joke in the side bar!).
- Act as a facilitator by welcoming everyone as they join.
- Ask for specific feedback on the topic from each person – not just the regular ‘go to’ people.
- Avoid the ‘what do we all think?’ question that generally leads to cringing silence (or, alternatively, everyone talking over each other).
- Be mindful of affinity bias and confirmation bias – where we gravitate to people like us, and discount evidence that contradicts our own views.
- Explicitly invite diverse views, especially those from ‘cognitively peripheral’ team members (those who hold unique information/perspectives).
- Ask the team for the best times to schedule meetings and ways to maintain informal ‘corridor conversations’ – to meet customer and individual/team expectations.
- Check in with each team member regularly.
- Pay attention to the diversity of the team mix – from both the perspective of demographics and thinking approaches.
- Remember that not-knowing – demonstrating humility – is a strength of an inclusive leader.
- Be compassionate to the different emotions and situations employees may be experiencing –most people are understandably anxious about COVID-19 and its impact on health and work futures, some people are combining work with home-schooling, while others may be in a business-as-usual mindset.
Practising intentional inclusive leadership is likely to have far-reaching positive impacts for everyone – individuals, businesses and customers – in our continuing response to the pandemic. What business leader wouldn’t want to achieve that?
You can read more about the online programs and services from Diversity Partners here.
Dr Katie Spearritt is the CEO and founder of Diversity Partners, a highly respected professional services firm providing consulting advice to organisations on diversity, flexibility, and inclusive leadership in Australia and Asia. Diversity Partners has delivered programs and consulting to more than 300 organisations in Australia & Asia, ranging in size from small consulting firms to large global firms such as BHP and Rio Tinto. Clients include public and private sector firms. Thousands of leaders – from boardrooms to mine sites – have participated in their programs.
Katie is one of the most experienced diversity leaders in Australia, having worked as the Head of Diversity in Hewlett Packard Australia and Asia, Coles Group and the National Australia Bank, before founding Diversity Partners. She has a deep knowledge of industry best practice through diverse consulting assignments in Australia and Asia. Katie was selected as a member of BP’s Global Faculty on Diversity & Inclusion in 2011. She has a PhD in Business & Economics for her research on equity and diversity in large organisations (awarded in 1997).