How to build digital inclusion into hybrid work
By Jo Faragher on 10 January 2023
Working with prison inmates, digital learning specialist James Tweed knows the value of digital inclusion. “This is a hugely overlooked issue, and one that businesses must be more equipped to tackle as society makes more technological advances,” he says. His company Coracle works with prisoners to equip them with digital skills such as putting together their CV or enrolling online for courses, to help them find employment once they re-enter wider society. “Creating a company culture that can overcome physical barriers is essential in the increasingly hybrid age of work. This comes from the actions taken by company leaders to ensure that remote workers can benefit from team relationships and interactions in a way that is different but still beneficial,” he argues.
Since the easing of pandemic restrictions and a return to ‘normality’, many organisations have now fallen into a hybrid working routine. That means for much of the time, employees will access meetings or projects from home or another remote location. However, too often managers make assumptions that working remotely will suit all individuals or that every member of the team will immediately pick up the technology required to collaborate from outside the office.
“The problem with assumptions is that they are exactly that, assumptions,” says Anna Lemor, international market development and strategy partner at imc Learning. Everyone is predisposed with a view, thought or idea, but rarely does that person fully understand the full picture.” Common assumptions include that older employees lack digital knowledge or skills, or that parents will be distracted by children or family obligations, she adds. Sandi Wassmer, CEO of enei (Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion), is registered blind and has experienced managers’ assumptions first hand. “Organisations that are truly inclusive will naturally involve employees in the decisions that affect their day-to-day work and shape the business, but many organisations on their inclusion journeys are not quite there yet,” she says. “So many assumptions are made around technology, particularly when those making the decisions are digital natives. One such example is deciding not to provide training on use of an app because it is deemed intuitive, which may not be the case for many users. Personally, I’ve also seen lots of assumptions made about disabled people. When I first registered blind, nobody asked me what format I wanted information sent to me in, and I had a whole bunch of stuff sent to me in Braille. Only 7% of people with significant sight loss read Braille, and I am not one of them.”
Toby Mildon, diversity and inclusion architect and founder of Mildon, says there is often more nuance to people’s situations: “It’s easy to assume that employees are all technically savvy but this is not always the case. Some will have difficulty with technology – whether that’s digital literacy skills or accessibility challenges (like manual dexterity problems using a touchscreen),” he explains. “There is plenty of helpful software out there to enable hybrid working, but this software can have varying degrees of usability and accessibility. Businesses need to do their research and pick solutions that work for as many employees as possible.” For example, some organisations use the collaboration tool Notion, but it doesn’t allow participants to use Dragon speech-to-text software, so could be a no-no. Alt text – a short, written description of an image that can be accessed by a screen reader, can also be useful for those with visual impairments. Digital engagement agency Puzzle recently launched a campaign (#AccessAlt) to encourage organisations to make more use of alt text in visual campaigns.
It’s also crucial not to make assumptions about employees’ physical set up, Mildon adds: “Consider that some employees will not have the same sort of technology and workspace set-up at home that they are used to in the office – for example large desktop screens or even ergonomic chairs – so be prepared to assess requirements at an individual level rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.” From a practical perspective, Katy Morrison, EDI lead at Connect Three, says open conversations are a must. “Connectivity barriers for some need to be considered, and check that people have the right infrastructure at home for access to Wi-Fi and broadband. This shouldn’t be a given, especially in today’s cost of living crisis,” she says. “Having open conversations with people to address skill levels and confidence of using the internet required equipment, to ensure managers have the right expectations on how long tasks will take different individuals or what security measures people have in place if working on items that should be secured.”
Personalities and thinking styles
Aside from ensuring that employees are able to access the right technology and are suitably trained to use it, an important consideration is how different personalities will handle a mix of working arrangements. “Different personality types will have different issues with hybrid working. Some will need more support than others. Some will need more contact with colleagues and their managers,” says Martin Gibbons, co-founder of PeopleMaps. “What one person perceives as being isolated, another is delighted in having peace to get on with things.” Managers will also need support in building digital inclusion, as having team members access meetings or projects remotely can make them feel out of control. “The starting point is to understand who has what issues and then provide support measures to address the specific issues, whilst remembering that each individual will have a different issue. There are no blanket solutions here,” he adds.
Toby Mildon advises managers to use technology to help them set new ‘norms’ of how people interact. “Setting norms for using technologies can help, for example setting the expectation that contributions to meetings via chat are just as legitimate as speaking aloud, which your introverted colleagues may appreciate,” he says. “This will help include people who are uncomfortable talking on camera, and those who tend to take time to think things through rather than responding spontaneously in a live meeting.” On the flipside, they should also avoid developing an expectation that employees respond outside of working hours because it’s easy. “Again, set expectations, and talk about the benefits of downtime and establishing boundaries in working hours and responding to emails,” he adds.
But while constant connectivity can be a risk of hybrid working, employers should also be wary of digital ‘exclusion’, or isolation. Rani Khalon, an engagement consultant at D&I consulting company Forty1, says “remote working is a great example of how tech can open the world to people who often get left out”. “Tech can connect people, but it can’t build the connection between people. When setting up remote working, consider people’s personalities such as introverts. What is the best way to run a video call to get their thoughts included in the discussion?” she advises. Too often, managers focus on technology’s role in increasing productivity rather than how it can enrich relationships or build connections, adds Khalon. “We found that so much of the conversation about measuring productivity fails to acknowledge how productivity looks different for people who are neurodivergent or have caring responsibilities. If you want to avoid the pitfalls of remote working such as isolation, feeling left out of career opportunities or decrease in productivity then focus on how inclusive your culture is. Issues with remote working only arise when there are underlying dynamics where people are excluded from the process of designing remote working solutions.”
Rob Brougham, director and co-founder of Braided Communications, which has developed communication tools for astronauts in space, offers the following advice: “When you think about technologies designed to help diverse teams work together, then the question is no longer about individual impact, but more about how to create an environment and processes where the team can work together as effectively as possible, where no individual is limited for any reason. Importantly, this doesn’t necessarily mean trying to replicate the environment and processes which exist in a physical workplace, because many of those are actually flawed. There is research going right back to the 1950s which shows that in a traditional face-to-face meeting, a small number of people do most of the talking. Some people talk more and some talk less due to a wide range of factors, which may include neurodiversity. The same is true if all remote meetings are only video.” Brougham advises that organisations have access to a range of tools and modalities, both synchronous and asynchronous, allowing more people to contribute effectively.
Ultimately, the key to success with digital inclusion is understanding that individuals are just that – you don’t expect people to work in a homogenous way in the office, so why expect them to be the same when they’re collaborating remotely?
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.