How can we support inclusion for remote workers?
By Jo Faragher reposted 19 March 2020
*This article was first posted on 20 February, we are reposting so it appears on our homepage and might offer some helpful tips during this challenging time.
‘Office life’ is not what it used to be. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people working from home increased by 74% between 2008 and 2018. Almost three-quarters of private sector workers report that they have the option to work remotely. Globalisation often means that team members could be in multiple country offices in one week, and signing in from home the week after.
There are many advantages to allowing employees to work more flexibly or arrange their hours around other commitments – it can save on commuting time and money; staff feel more engaged because they feel trusted to complete work tasks on their own terms; and it tends to be more environmentally friendly.
But how does remote work affect inclusivity at organisations?
With so much focus in D&I now on the importance of shifting the culture, of building feelings of inclusion – how can we do this with workers who are not physically in the building? Despite the benefits of remote work, you could argue that in some ways it impedes progress on diversity. Do women who frequently work remotely due to family considerations get the same level of career advancement, for example? There’s also the danger of remote workers feeling they always have to be ‘on’, responding to emails at all hours or over-working so they can prove they are productive – this too can impact certain groups more than others.
Talking about D&I and supporting a remote workforce at last month’s d&i Leaders Global Forum, Veronika Hucke, CEO of consultancy D&I Strategy and Solutions, cited the outdated assumption that we need to be physically close to perform better as a team. “There was research carried out in the 1970s that revealed that the distance between people’s desks reflected the likelihood they would talk to someone,” she explained. “If they could see someone, they’d be more likely to talk to them.”
But is this still the case in 2020? Networking technology company Citrix recently carried out research into employees’ feelings of connection. The number of people who worked remotely who felt disconnected from their manager was only slightly higher (17%) than those who were always in the office (15%). Hucke added: “We were wrong to believe the leading indicator was location. It was whether they felt connected.”
More relevant factors were whether the manager was interested in connecting and ensured the remote person could contribute in the same way people in the office did. “If you’re ignored, it doesn’t matter where you sit,” she said. Because while advances in technology have made it much easier to justify working from home, an airport lounge or observing a swimming lesson, “technology is only part of the puzzle. Humans are what’s at the end of it,” according to Citrix’ Scott Balina, who joined Hucke in the session.
The research also found that people who felt disconnected were more than twice as likely as those who didn’t to say the organisation did not offer equal opportunities, and nine times more likely to say they felt disconnected from peers. These feelings represent the opposite of what most organisations are trying to achieve with inclusion – and are also ripe for creating an atmosphere that people want to leave. So how can leaders and managers ensure that everyone – regardless of their place of work – feels part of an organisation and its goals?
We need to reframe the conversation around non-office based workers
Hucke argued that we need to reframe the conversation around non-office based workers. “It’s not about being ‘remote’, it’s ensuring that we build bridges and make connections,” she said. This means avoiding an experience that feels transactional, as we might if we fire off email instructions without any other interaction. “Email can be about more than information, how can we introduce those chats we might have in the office, those human moments?” It’s also about how we organise talent models, said Balina. “We need to build capability in managers to open up global talent pools that don’t rely on people who are in the same office or country,” he suggested.
How HR departments construct and word policies around remote working can also help how ‘included’ remote workers feel. Role modelling agile work practices rather than merely communicating what the policy is can make a huge difference. “This is the gap between ‘I don’t dare ask if I can work remotely’ and ‘I can ask’,” Balina explained. Simple but effective practices such as ensuring teams meet in person on a regular basis or asking those joining conference calls to use the camera on their laptop or phone can build connections, he added. Structuring meetings so everyone speaks up is not only good practice for remote workers, but inclusivity in general.
Finally, Citrix’ research found that those who felt connected yet remote also connected with colleagues on an informal level. Sending a colleague a ‘virtual cupcake’ and singing over Skype on their birthday may sound like a crazy idea, but absolutely makes them feel part of the team and included.
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.