How to address the growing challenges of inclusivity in the new hybrid and remote workplace?

Over the last two years, most businesses have moved from a fully on-site office to a remote setup. Some are now leaning towards a hybrid model—i.e., partially remote and partially on-site at any given working day.

The key challenge in such an environment is to create a sense of belongingness and inclusivity. For instance, if you are a new employee who joined an organization that was fully on-site pre-COVID, you might notice a deeper level of bonding between the people who moved from office to remote environment compared to the relationship equations you might establish being a remote-first employee.

The HRs and senior executives encounter many challenges in creating and sustaining a sense of real community or a homogeneous cultural experience. Obviously, there's no easy solution to it.

Regardless of the future of work we are heading toward, the modern remote and hybrid workplace should have proper policies and processes around diversity and inclusivity to ensure a healthy working environment.

From a cultural standpoint, embracing inclusivity as part of the new remote culture gives everyone in your organization an equal footing to coexist and thrive. From a business perspective, prioritizing inclusivity creates a well-oiled system that integrates everyone in natural harmony and encourages them to contribute meaningfully to your organization's goals.

A survey conducted by BCG showed that companies with more diverse leadership teams reported higher innovation revenue levels than companies with below-average diversity scores.

Source: Weforum

Things can fall apart pretty quickly in absence of such a system that works as a binding agent to bring people together.

Why do you need an inclusive work environment?

Having worked for more than 12 years, I can tell you with certainty that having a sense of belongingness and feeling included can greatly impact the quality of work you do. That said, the reverse is also true—let us look at what can happen if you ignore diversity and inclusion.

1. Low job satisfaction

Inclusion at work never meant free coffee, beer Fridays, or employee of the month recognition. But even if you pretend that they are inclusion-worthy perks, most of these incentives are obsolete in the remote-first and hybrid world.

In reality, inclusion means giving all employees a sense of belonging to the workplace, giving them a voice, treating them equally, and respecting their work-life boundaries. When a workplace fails to do the above, it aggravates the employee satisfaction levels and gives them enough reasons to quit.

Once, a $15-billion multinational company ran an employee engagement survey to determine job satisfaction levels among employees across their global offices. The survey found that workers at their Canadian office scored the lowest in the job satisfaction index because the managers sent emails to their subordinates even on weekends.

It's just a small example that shows how failing to value people's personal space can lead to decreased levels of satisfaction at work.

2. Shallow peer-to-peer connectivity and engagement

The fact of the matter is—managing a hybrid, or fully remote team makes it particularly challenging to know how to bring people together and build rapport across the company. With my first-hand experience from 2019 to now, I can certainly say that "forced connection"—such as virtual team bonding activities—can be counterproductive.

Typically, people who work remotely as part of an in-person team are often removed from the culture bred in an office. People thrive in environments where they feel a sense of inclusivity and ownership. Ownership isn't about someone who takes up more work on their plate—it is the feeling of responsibility for the brand's vision and the entire team. 

ADP Research Institute recently published a paper that correlated teamwork as the biggest driver of employee engagement. According to the report, employees who identified themselves as an integral part of a team were 2.3 times more engaged than those who didn't share similar sentiments.

3. Decreased productivity

The biggest problem with diversity and inclusion programs at work isn't that the management isn't doing it, but they think they are doing enough. There's a perception gap between the senior management and the employees who interpret workplace inclusivity differently.

The result? The perception gap is costing U.S. companies a staggering $1.05 trillion in yearly losses—mostly in the form of lower productivity levels and higher employee turnover rates. In other words, lack of inclusivity gives way to feelings of apathy and breeds unprofitability.

4. Low employee morale

Low employee morale is like a virus—it's toxic, highly contagious, and kills productivity at work in silence.

Lack of inclusion often causes micromanagement and loss of work-life balance in a workplace. The real problem is, nobody will come forth to report that they have low morale at work. You might have an overwhelming level of poor employee morale, but you might never be able to detect it—which is why it's a silent killer at work.

Eventually, the toxicity compounds and gives way to an unhealthy, highly political, and unproductive workplace. So instead of waiting for low employee morale to invade your workplace, it's better to take a preventive approach to steer clear of situations that can lead to it.

5. Impact on hiring and legal challenges

Diversity hiring is an integral part of building an inclusive work environment. But it doesn't mean hiring more people of color or LGBTQ background just for the sake of diversity.

When you don't open your hiring funnel to be more inclusive or limit its scope to fill the diversity quota in your recruitment process, you limit your opportunities to have the best people on board. Diversity hiring aims to attract and recruit qualified candidates from all possible backgrounds who can add value to the organization's diversity and its business.

Sometimes, lack of inclusion can lead your workplaces to extreme cases like being embroiled in a legal soup.

Take the lawsuit against Google as an example. Despite it being a champion of affirmative action, one of its engineers sued Google a few years ago, accusing the tech giant of being prejudiced in firing him and suppressing conservative viewpoints in the name of being a liberal thinking workspace.

Although the case is settled now, the case highlighted Google's Ideological Echo Chamber and changed the public perception about the search engine giant. The bottom line—failing to build an inclusive work policy can make your business more prone to legal and regulatory complications.

Here are 9 inclusive practices for your remote and hybrid teams

For making everyone in your team feel comfortable in their job, the senior management has to lead some initiatives to make inclusivity a part of the workplace culture. Here are some tips on how to go about it.

1. Formalize inclusion as part of your remote work policy

It's not enough to say you have an inclusive workplace unless you have formal processes and policies to back up the claim. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich recently pledged $300 million to improve hiring talents from the underrepresented communities. That's the kind of tangible action that every remote workplace needs to take to prioritize inclusivity as part of their work policy.

Start by setting up a remote diversity and inclusion committee. The formal body can spearhead all the inclusion and diversity initiatives at the workplace to ensure nothing gets left behind.

It’s time to step up and do more. It’s not good enough to say we value diversity.

-Brian Krzanich, Intel CEO

Run employee surveys to understand the current state of inclusion in your organization—or the perception gap between employees and the management. Organize Zoom workshops, start email newsletters, and codify policies to give inclusion a formal base to stand on.

This is possible when you have a committee that can create an inclusivity and diversity roadmap to address all sections of the organizations with their D&I programs. Give them goals that they can be held accountable for and meet weekly or monthly to track the progress being made, assign tasks, and ensure the initiative is running smoothly.

2. Make your hiring process inclusive

Given today's remote and hybrid work environment—it is easier than ever to hire people beyond geographies, time zones, and other limiting factors we had with physical offices. So, it all starts with having an inclusive hiring policy. Of course, there are legal parameters like Equal Employment Opportunity and affirmative action to check and balance diversity hiring, but that doesn't suffice diversity hiring unless you are mindful about it.

An inclusive workplace has fully engaged employees—which means they like their colleagues and want to stay with the company for as long as they can. A well-rounded diversity hiring program offers more promises besides employee retention—such as employee referrals, improved employer branding, improved candidate experience, and so on.

Therefore, conduct a diversity hiring audit on your current hiring process and identify areas of improvement to make your recruitment more inclusive in practice. It makes a lot of sense to leverage interview intelligence for that purpose.

How to use interview intelligence as part of your recruitment?

Offer a uniform employee onboarding experience to all to make sure they get the welcome they deserve regardless of their seniority levels, background, experience, ethnicity, gender, and so on. When needed, personalize certain parts of the onboarding process for specific roles to set the right expectations and help them transition to their new roles more efficiently.

3. Make everyone an active participant

Inclusivity, by definition, means including everyone. All your efforts to build an inclusive workplace will fall flat on its face if it fails to take everyone together. What's the point of a D&I program where the CXOs call the shots while others are subjected to bear the fate of what is being decided for them?

Therefore, consult everyone (regardless of remote or on-premise) when you are drafting your D&I policies. Ask them for feedback to amend the policies that they feel are irrelevant or exclusive to certain sections of the employees. It's important to note that building an inclusive workplace is a cultural practice—and culture is incomplete without everyone's equal participation.

4. Facilitate open feedback and communication

Like a truly democratic setup, an inclusive workplace demands transparency and honest commitment to see it succeed. Implement open-door policies to encourage bottom-up discourse and not just top-down communication.

To that end, you should aim to create an environment where employees can express their opinions freely without fear of judgment or reprimand. If that's not practical—if employees are hesitant to be vocal about their opinions for fear of criticism—think of alternatives to still make it work. For instance, create anonymous communication channels to encourage employees to share their feedback and implement them in the D&I policy document.

5. Give your employees a safe space for informal chit chat

Like on-site teams, remote employees don't have the privilege of bumping into each other and carrying out water cooler chats. Such casual interactions are an important aspect of human dynamics because they let employees know each other better, build meaningful friendships, and recharge themselves from the monotony of work.

But it's hard to replicate the break room setup in virtual environments—unless you are intentional about it. For example, create Slack channels for employees to share tidbits about their personal lives, connect over pop culture entertainment, or showcase their hobbies/talents.

Here's an example of a personal showcase from one of my colleagues at Avoma:

It might feel like non-work interactions don't contribute to workplace inclusivity, but they do in ways that aren't obvious. Casual chit chats encourage people to bring their whole selves to work and collaborate on a personal, human level. Therefore, the outcomes of such interactions always impact the quality of diversity and inclusion at your workplace.

6. Practice empathetic leadership

The leaders in your organization need as much training in understanding inclusivity as an average employee. For them, it starts when they start practicing empathetic leadership. Remember, culture flows from the top—what the leaders practice trickles down to other levels of management—especially in the early stages of your startup.  

Train your leaders to listen empathetically and commit to the inclusivity mission of your organization. Most senior managers have a lot on their plate and very little time to sit through culture training and workshops—but that's precisely why it's twice as important to make them aware of the cognitive biases that might muddle their everyday interaction with their direct reports.

Here's a good tip to help leaders cultivate a more empathetic outlook towards their teams. Schedule a Zoom meeting with the team every week to address their issues and ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to voice their opinion.

7. Conduct frequent employee check-ins

Frequent 1:1 check-in meetings (at least once a month) are critical to driving employee engagement and inclusivity. A check-in meeting lets functional leaders interact with their team regularly and get updates from them on important issues.

However, don't confuse check-in meetings with regular work-related sprints and stand-ups. An employee check-in meeting is more of a 1:1 interaction between a manager and their team members than a status meeting at a team level. These meetings can be about work, but it's better to scope how each team member feels about being part of the team and their contribution. Use check-in meetings as a tool to talk about the employees' experience about current projects, get or give feedback, boost their confidence, and help them succeed in their roles.

8. Default to asynchronous communication

Asynchronous communication is a paced-out, staggered, and relatively relaxed way of interacting with each other. Unlike real-time communication, the asynchronous communication style doesn't compel you to be on your toes at all times. You have the luxury to reply at your convenience—depending on how urgent the situation is.

Asynchronous communication makes remote-first workplaces more inclusive because it lets you adjust to different time zones. With asynchronous communication, people worldwide can contribute to the task at hand without being left out. It also frees employees from the pressure to respond to their managers in the wee hours. This invariably helps you create a diversified workforce that can collaborate regardless of their geographic differences.

9. Keep all employee backgrounds in mind

You can't have inclusion at work without diversity and accommodating the needs of a diverse workforce in your company culture.

In a remote work setup, it's important to realize that you are dealing with all kinds of personalities and people with different circumstances at home. We have already talked about accommodating people from different time zones through asynchronous communication. Similarly, it would help to consider the unique needs of people from different cultural backgrounds or nationalities, new parents, and differently-abled when drafting your remote work policy.

Workplace inclusion, in that sense, is like an office potluck party. Everybody brings different food and flavor to the table and ends up sharing them. But if you have a rigid food policy that only steak and meat lovers will enjoy, the vegans will certainly feel left out in the cold.

Final thoughts

Making your remote workplace more inclusive and diverse often leads to high employee morale, increased team productivity, improved employee retention, and better revenue outcomes. But don't just aim to make your workplace diverse—make it inclusive in a way that welcomes everyone's participation in forming a healthy remote work culture and makes them comfortable in being themselves.