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Four Inclusive Workplace Practices for Your Virtual Team

Diverse employees on a virtual callAs companies continue virtual work in response to COVID-19, many employees may be left disconnected and disengaged. In fact, an April 2020 study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that a full 65 percent of employers say maintaining morale has been a challenge due to the switch to remote work, and more than one third face difficulties with worker productivity. The good news is that a path to better engagement and productivity is within reach. The solution: focus on a key driver of a healthy talent mindset — inclusion.  

When it comes to inclusion, a focus on best practices is more necessary than ever. The following are four priorities to address the inclusion and engagement challenge. These practices for creating belonging across the workforce are not necessarily new; rather, they are innovations to inclusion strategies that have proven successful over time. By embracing these priorities, companies stand to better retain their hard-won talent and position themselves to adapt to the changing conditions that lie ahead.

1. Boost the Focus on People

In a physical work environment, different people who do different jobs are likely to run into each other, whether at the coffee machine, the front desk, the elevator, or hallway. Each of these encounters reminds us we are part of a larger whole, provides a sense of community and purpose, and gives rise to new working relationships that otherwise may not have been forged. These interactions, no matter how small, build a more inclusive workforce. In a virtual environment, those interactions are lost if people only communicate on purpose-built, scheduled meetings, and workflow-based encounters.

As the dust begins to settle from the initial shift to remote working, companies may want to consider ways to work around the tunnels of team-only interactions. Leaders and managers can dedicate groups on collaboration platforms that stand outside of core teams and business functions. Companies can establish times for interactions across those teams, as well as social topics, contests, or activities that stand outside the regular work cadence. In other words, bring fun online, but also bring real communication across all media. Screenshots of virtual team hangouts boost morale, but updates on side-projects, CSR activities, and other human endeavors by people across different functions will bring the inclusive value up a notch.

When it comes to breaking out of the team interaction tunnel, leadership can set an example. Give leadership a voice to the whole company, but also encourage leaders to make themselves present across other groups. A small investment in time by leaders can alter the morale equation for many workers. “This unexpected pivot to a global work-from-home experiment isn’t easy for employees,” says AGS Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion Ian Moses. “It takes a level of care and empathy that is actively communicated from the top down to reassure employees that they are being heard.”

Man on a virtual conference call

2. Leverage Employee Resource Groups (ERG’s)

ERGs, also known as affinity groups, employee networks, or business resource groups, create spaces for employees with similar backgrounds and their allies to come together, address workplace challenges, and contribute to business outcomes. This coming together is even more important for strengthening connection and communication when employees don’t see each other in person.

The importance of ERGs cannot be overlooked. Their participants are typically highly engaged top performers. In fact, surveys have found that up to 87 percent of ERG members felt more engaged at work due to their participation. These employees can lead the way for monitoring the emotional well-being of group members as well as collecting and addressing concerns.

For example, an ERG that is dedicated to Persons with Disabilities will be able to more accurately communicate with their group members and gather data on their needs while they adjust to working virtually. They will also be able to help develop company materials tailored to their group members.  “When you are in an ERG you feel that you are being heard and that you are contributing your ideas,” says AGS Program Manager, Keondra Taylor. “Since COVID-19, our ERGs have been on the forefront of communicating vital wellbeing messages and providing practical information and support. Our ERG members feel that their specific needs are acknowledged, and that is a key to continued engagement.”

Diverse employees in an office

3. Confront Unconscious Bias

In a virtual talent landscape, unconscious bias remains a challenge. Bias can cause a hiring manager to overlook qualified candidates for a role in the interviewing and screening stage, and it can make life difficult for workers after they are hired or engaged.  The challenge grows when hiring becomes a virtual experience and many aspects of human interaction shift to video and digital channels. And when those biases come with subtle verbal and non-verbal insults, it takes an organizational approach to stop it. 

Awareness is critical to reducing bias. To address the issue, create training and community groups to educate hiring managers and supervisors on biases, and recognize the new areas of bias that arise in a virtual environment. For example, a candidate being interviewed for a role may not be comfortable with technology or may need extra time to set up. Unconscious bias may diminish the candidate’s level of competence in the eyes of the hiring manager, even if the issues at play have little to do with the long-term success of the role. Likewise, employees may find themselves working for bosses who are less forgiving of weaknesses and less appreciative of their strengths compared employees who are more comfortable working remotely. Supervisors may not include them in working groups based on perceived weakness. This type of microaggression can be toxic to the work experience.

“Microaggressions manifest themselves through verbal, behavioral, or environmental insult,” notes AGS Head of HR, EMEA Tobi Collett. “They are often automatic and unintentional, and they can occur in brief instances daily. They can create a negative a psychological impact for some, including stress, anxiety, and depression. It is important to create safe, non-judgmental spaces in an organization to discuss any microaggressions. At AGS we do this through our Employee Resource Groups, Management Community Sessions and Diversity training. We encourage open communication through our values to ensure there is a diversity of thought and respect to all our people.”

Work in a home office

4. Train Employees and Managers to Recognize and Address Issues

Recognizing bias, boosting inclusion, and breaking down barriers are all efforts that take place at the level of personal interaction. That interaction is profoundly altered in the shift to a virtual work, where biases may go unrecognized, employees may “fall off the map” in communications, and issues may grow until they impact worker engagement. Training provides an effective checkpoint for addressing the issues early.

To achieve impact, creating training's where employees can ask questions about what is and is not acceptable, as well as how to confront key issues. Training's should trigger behavioral changes that provide employees with “ah ha” moments rather than simply checking off the boxes of a curriculum plan. These training's should emphasize that while everyone has biases, increased self-awareness can create behavioral changes that impact decisions related to hiring, performance management, and succession planning.  

Belinda Kielly, a Senior Talent Development Manager at AGS who facilitates such training's for clients and employees emphasizes the sharing of firsthand experiences while offering a space for her trainees to ask what may or may not be appropriate in their situations. “A personal example I like to share is the time I was told a doctor and a nurse were renting my apartment and I unconsciously assumed that they were male and female,” says Kielly.  “It wasn’t until receiving the lease paperwork and seeing two female names that I realized what I had done. Examples like this happen often in virtual environments where assumptions can easily be made.”

Home office set up

Inclusion will Remain Critical Beyond the Shift to Remote Work

Even as companies begin re-opening offices and facilities, the relationships, challenges, and successes associated with remote work will continue to shape the worker experience. In particular, the practices that reinforce inclusion will continue to determine levels of engagement in many employees. By putting those practices to work, and treating them as ongoing priorities, companies will not only reinforce commitment during the crisis, they will achieve a vital workforce advantage that lasts well into the future.

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Four inclusive workplace practices infographic


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    Written by Ian Moses
    Ian Moses was the global head of inclusion and diversity at AGS. He was responsible for developing, promoting and executing AGS’ Diversity and Inclusion strategy with our employees, partners and clients, with specific focus on building and supporting high-performance teams that are inclusive of the communities in which we live and serve. Ian moved on from AGS in 2021.