Fostering Inclusive Workplaces During Isolation

  • May 6, 2020

We've crossed a collective threshold. 'BC' no longer solely describes the time before the birth of Christ. It can also define a more relevant time for earth's current inhabitants: Before COVID or Before Coronavirus. Many of us may have taken for granted the laughs by the water cooler, the passing compliment on the way to the powder room, the hugs (for those of us who are huggers), the handshakes, and the smiles that permeated our days before quarantine. You can’t see a smile under a face mask.

As a growing number of workplaces migrate to the Internet in pursuit of connection, solvency, hope, and information–old challenges remain relevant amid the urgency of our most pressing concerns. Namely, how we cultivate and support diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially on remote teams. Of course, some folks will read this and resent the idea that diversity, equity, and inclusion programs are singled-out as something that needs dedicated focus when people are dying in unconscionable numbers. But lest we forget, the concepts and practices from DEI are absolutely related to our current moment. The very same issues that created and perpetuated inequity BC (before COVID) are exacerbating the fatality of the virus for the same folks adversely affected by racism, discrimination, and marginalization. In other words, the problems that we faced before haven’t gone away - they’re getting worse and evolving.

That, my friends, is a bitter pill to swallow. I wish I had better news. For those of you still reading and asking what you can do to help, well, keep reading.

Evolving Diversity, Broadening Inclusion

If you are among the fortunate who still have work, are creating work, or have the courage and energy to connect with people online– this message is for you.

The global pandemic gives us an extraordinary opportunity to expand our understanding of the dimensions of diversity. As always, I invite you to learn about and embrace the historical aspects of marginalization and the reasons we have protected categories, such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, class, and sexual orientation. We must never forget that we built nations and systems on the unstable bedrock of oppression - and we’re going to have to reckon and rebuild with the rubble one day, perhaps sooner than many of us anticipated. That said, diversity is more than the color of our skin, our gender, and whom we love.

You can adapt your thinking on diversity and flex your inclusion muscles by considering the multifaceted nature of every single person you interact with online. Why? Because the remote communication phenomenon removes some of the limited and imperfect equalizations that the workplace used to offer. Work schedules, office norms, meeting times, dress codes, and reporting structures are designed to control people within a closed system.

Did people who never interacted with customers or external stakeholders really have to wear business attire every day? No. But it created an aesthetic someone believed conducive to a professional work environment. Professionalism as a concept has been interrogated of late and is increasingly considered a placeholder for 'showing up at work like a white male.' Take it or leave it, but when a woman of color is told that her hair is 'unprofessional' because it's worn the way it grows, it's equivalent to controlling a body and shaming it for not being white. Thank goodness for the passage of the Crown Act.

Recent articles in CNBC and The New York Times offer a variety of helpful tips on best practices and etiquette for video-conferencing but miss the deeper analysis of equity and inclusion in the virtual world. Hot takes like, "we don't want to see your kid while you're on a work call," elide the larger conversation about parenthood and the labor, support, and education that was once conducted in schools now happening at home. Another example would be the broadband and device issue - are you sure that every employee is living in a home with strong broadband that can accommodate video-conferencing, and what are the implications of making assumptions like this? Has your organization made arrangements for every employee to have a working device so they can stay connected to the work and team? These are just a few considerations, but it calls attention to the larger question of how we compassionately broaden our sense of inclusion as we navigate these new working dynamics together.

What types of diversity should you be aware of when connecting with remote teams? Here are a few assumptions to avoid when creating inclusive virtual workplaces:

  1. Don’t assume that everyone can access a private workspace. The presence of roommates and children can limit someone’s ability to create a quiet environment.
  2. Don’t assume that everyone wants to share their workspace onscreen. Keeping a tidy home and having a home you want to share is a privilege. Sharing your home environment is intimate and personal and should not be a requirement.
  3. Don’t assume everyone has an amazing internet connection. Again, simply having more people in the house or apartment can render speeds useless. Video conferencing exacerbates that.
  4. Don't assume everyone is safe and happy. Create a dedicated space to check in on your teammates, their families, and their mental health. Depression is on the rise, and isolation increases loneliness.

These are just a handful of things to consider. Why not take time to schedule virtual water coolers/happy hours that are not about work but instead about connection? Don't wait for leadership to give the green light for your teammates - set them up yourself if need be. People don't have to opt-in, but having the option can be just the release valve people need. If your group is large, use the breakout feature your conferencing software offers, or use the chat feature, or set up smaller, random groupings.

Centering the Vulnerable

To know how to create inclusive communities, virtual and physical (when the time comes), we have to understand where people are - a subject that can be tricky to broach when previously unseen parts of our identities and lives are now made more visible. Consider posting an anonymous list of needs managed by a centralized or trusted person. You never know what is hiding in someone's basement that might serve a single mom trying to keep an elementary schooler occupied. Now more than ever, we need to open up about our whole lives whenever that is safe and possible. Remember that a core tenet of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) work is welcoming people to bring their whole self to work. There has never been a better time, to be honest, and open about the fact that you are caring for an elderly parent, going through a divorce, or just scared shitless about the state of the world.

We are not robots. We are humans with hearts and spirits, and we are all extremely and inherently vulnerable. Just remember that we are all in the same storm, even if we're not in the same boat. As the adage goes, "a rising tide lifts all boats." Some of us are in yachts while others are in decrepit rowboats with holes on the bottom, barely surviving this mess. Be mindful of people's boats and find out how you can help keep them from sinking. If you are sinking, please ask for help. Now is not the time to be ashamed of our circumstances. Together is the only way we survive this.

While considering the most vulnerable among us, please name and post resources for domestic violence and suicide hotlines, as people who suffer from one or both of these afflictions are also experiencing a rise. Hopefully, no one on your team is experiencing danger in their confinement, but if their online work time is the only connection they have, you could save lives by making the connection for someone else. Also, consider aggregating and sharing a resource list of apps and services that people are using and recommend for survival and sanity. Meditation and exercise apps, grocery delivery, open virtual hangouts, homeschool resources, etc. Share and support relevant petitions and resources like the ACLU in their efforts to protect the disabled from being denied ventilators as a course of policy simply for not being able-bodied. The underlying beauty of this moment is that justice work has become accessible, and sharing information, building connection, and highlighting the steps we need to take to serve the most vulnerable and impacted is made possible because of the Internet. Whether you know someone who comes from a vulnerable community or not, we have the opportunity to build the world anew on the bedrock of inclusion that celebrates diversity. But first, we have to see and validate each different human experience in its fullness.

This is not the way the world ends. I'm almost certain of that. But we can mitigate the fallout if we stay connected and remember that we each started from different places before the pandemic hit. Equity is all about getting people what they need to succeed. So let's all do what we can to take care of not only ourselves and our families, but the beautiful souls already connected to our lives. You can't save everyone, and you don't have to. But wouldn't the world be a safer place if we were at least there to better support and care for the people whose names we already know?

Tiffany Jana is an internationally known keynote speaker on the topic of diversity and racial equity in the workplace and the founder of TMI Consulting Incorporated, a diversity and inclusion management-consulting firm. TMI Consulting is a benefit corporation as well as a certified B Corporation and earned the 2016 and 2018 Best for the World honor from the nonprofit B Lab that certifies B Corps worldwide. Their combined four books have shaped the world of diversity, equity, and inclusion and include Overcoming Bias, which received an endorsement from 2016 Vice-Presidential candidate Tim Kaine, Erasing Institutional Bias, The B Corp Handbook, 2nd edition, and Subtle Acts of Exclusion.

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