Inclusion, Diversity, Equity in Action: A Pathway to Progress

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Elise Shapiro
Elise Shapiro
Elise Shapiro is a contributing editor. Little did she know that her first job, in the facilities department at Ralston Purina, while obtaining her M. Arch at Washington University, in St. Louis would foreshadow where her career would lead. She has always been a strong advocate for providing the best possible spaces for people to work – where aesthetics meet function and drive business success.

A recap of IFMA Workplace Evolutionaries’ first of three, recent virtual events.

inclusion and diversity
Facilitators: Jessica Bantom, Senior Associate, Workplace Experience, Steele Strategies, and Chris Armstrong, Co-Owner, Veritas Culture

The COVID-19 pandemic threw the business world into a cyclone of upheaval. It was unanticipated and came on fast and furiously. One of the biggest challenges was the pivot from companies operating in their physical offices to the transformation to remote work. The daily commute went from cars, buses, trains, and planes to the walk from the bedroom to the kitchen or dining room. The lucky ones already had a home office carved out of their living space.

So what did that mean for the culture of work and how we relate to each other in the virtual office? The Workplace Evolutionaries Mid-Atlantic and Northern California Hubs took that on with their facilitated virtual event on June 25th. We present some key takeaways and further questions posed to the facilitators.

Jessica and Chris took a creative approach to initiating a dialogue rather than a flat power point presentation. The cool ice breaker was for each person to say what their “song of the day” was! The selections ranged from the Red-Hot Chili Peppers to Reba McEntire, and that set the stage for a robust conversation on the challenges of managing diversity, inclusion, and engagement when we are not physically together in our workplaces. The conversation also touched on how the “virtual” office will now inform how companies may look at things a bit differently as the world slowly migrates back to their physical spaces.

Here are the comments that caught our attention:

Out of sight, out of mind? How do we combat the inequities in the remote work experience?

  • Being with someone in person is not the same as seeing them in a zoom window!
  • Face to face conversations are important, it is easier to assuage how the other person may be seeing, thinking, or experiencing.
  • It may be harder for some people to be seen and acknowledged. Let’s face it, the work world is geared to the hiring, progression, rewards, promotions, target positions, favor white hetero able-bodied men. The statistics are behind this, but the discussion and action need to move to understanding that each person is unique and can bring something of value to the table. In order to accomplish that everyone needs the opportunity to be seen and heard.

So how do we make that happen?

  • Even in remote collaboration – human needs need to be met – missing nonverbal communication, body language, that is important in terms of having a trust and building relationship. Technology plays a role in remote work, that is why community place is so important. We need to be thinking about this through a new lens.
  • Engagement – happens at the team level. Experience is defined by the immediate supervisor and team. People either feel included or not. When they do not feel acknowledged and included, they become disengaged. Disengaged people are less apt to perform well.

There were some interesting takes on how the remote work culture can be an equalizer as well as a disruptor.

  • In some ways, remote work has leveled the playing field. On Zoom, everyone is in the same size box – there is no head of the table. In some ways, that can be interpreted as one way this can make things more inclusive.
  • Alternatively, this can point out a divide, some people may not feel comfortable having their home environment visible or sharing that with their colleagues.
  • So the conversation needs to turn to how we can equal the playing field in the virtual environment.
  • In most physical workplaces there are global guidelines and standards based on hierarchy – remote work is one way to level that playing field, as well!

What are some ways to make sure people are seen?

  • Be aware of who is participating and who is not.
  • Be creative in bringing people to the table – and helping more reluctant employees engage on a larger scale so that they can be seen.
    • Assign projects and include them in meetings.
    • Put them in charge of projects that will increase their visibility.
    • Direct them to talk to others that may be better able to answer their questions about a work issue, problem or project that may be out of your area of expertise.
    • Make sure to give kudos when deserved. Call out achievement or success.
    • Help early career individuals grow their confidence, grow in their communication skills, build their trust that they can grow and do things on their own. 

Inclusion has to be deliberate.

  • Opportunities have to be provided for marginalized communities. This has to be thought out, need must be recognized.
  • This has to be a practice not a one-off thing.
  • There needs to be sustained actions to create an inclusive environment.
  • In remote meetings make sure to give everyone the opportunity to participate. It is important to be intentional and make sure there are opportunities to give others a voice. 

What about authenticity? What is it like when a leader is scripted, can you feel that?

  • People can feel if someone is not authentic. That can lead to disillusionment and disengagement. This can have a domino effect. The system perpetuates itself in how assignments are distributed.
  • It takes courage and risk for the leader to give people opportunities that may not have gone well it can be risky. But it benefits when people are able to grow.

What is intersectionality?

There are so many differences among people, not just race and gender. There are multiple dimensions that are in the workplace. Ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, mental health challenged people. It is key because people can live in many of those dimensions and that will affect how they work and interact with others.

What are some of the key factors we need to be aware of to make sure all people can be successful in a remote work posture and how do you think that will carry over as we return to the office?

Inclusion is a feeling and an action. Here are some things to be aware of:

  • Be aware if someone is excluded from pre- meeting chatter or in conversations that are happening in the decision-making progress.
  • Reach out to include more people in the return to the office conversations.
  • Some people may be left out based on false assumptions about their situation(s).
  • Be mindful about your own judgments based on what you think you may know about someone.
  • Give people the same tools they have in their physical office to ensure equity across the workforce.
  • Make sure people are not embarrassed about their work accommodation needs.

These are real things that happen to people that present a lot of challenges. Find out what someone else’s reality is.

What can we do now to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the remote work normal?

  • Give everyone the floor equally.
  • Figure out how/why they feel the way they do, make sure others are included. Don’t make assumptions that everyone feels the same.
  • Create more places to connect virtually.
  • Try to check in with people – individually, on their well being as well as their work issues.
  • If you see someone is having a challenge, notice things as they happen and take the initiative to follow up and provide support.
  • Correct dismissive behavior in real time.
  • Ask people’s opinions to get them involved in the conversation, “What do you think…..?”
  • Set up one on one check ins.

Be aware of who is thriving, is vocal in remote situation. Pay attention to who is withdrawn, who was vocal and is now withdrawn. Take a look at the current dynamics in the remote environment. Look for opportunities to make positive, significant changes with your colleagues.

As a bonus we were able to follow up with Jessica and Chris after the webinar as we had some lingering questions.

The panel pointed out some key points to be aware of when working remotely, on how to make people feel included , to be “seen” and “heard”. How does that carry over as people return to their offices and shared spaces?

CA: Nearly everything leaders must do to make people feel seen and heard in the remote work environment are the same things leaders must do in the office and shared spaces environment. It is about highlighting employees and their programs; giving people a seat and voice at the table, and other things that equalize access, opportunity, and visibility.

JB: Agreed. The basic mechanisms are the same – it’s just that some of the tools and means of executing them may be different and largely will need to be more intentional in this virtual environment.

Are there things companies can do to ensure their physical spaces are promoting inclusion and diversity?

CA: Leaders in companies should not put a lot of time and effort trying to make their physical spaces do the work for them. Said differently, rearranging deck chairs, putting up posters, or moving from offices to a more open space says a lot about intent without showing a lot in practice. In fact, the more leaders attempt to make changes to physical spaces, the more women, people of color, and other disadvantaged groups are being spotlighted in the wrong ways.

Inclusion and equity, which are different and more important than diversity, are all about intentional actions tied specifically to who supervisors give access and opportunities to. This should be the bulk of where the effort and focus are put.

Is there a relationship between how a physical space can message positivity on inclusion and diversity?

JB: Designers and companies have the opportunity to team together to create spaces that promote inclusion and diversity if they approach the whole process with those principles in mind. That could mean literally asking themselves how they can accomplish that from the beginning of a project and incorporating that perspective into every step along the way, and by involving members of marginalized groups in activities around programming and post-occupancy evaluation, for example. Occupants of a space can get signals about inclusion and diversity from things like the perceived hierarchy of seating assignments and the thoughtfulness of the location of spaces like mother’s rooms. Powerful outcomes can be achieved if design is executed through this lens of inclusion and diversity.

What do you think is the biggest positive change in workplace dynamics that is a result of the massive shift to remote working?

CA: The biggest positive change is the proof positive that remote work and mission accomplishment can go hand in hand. Prior to COVID-19 and the subsequent remote work requirement, a lot of supervisors were hesitant to testing out remote work, this regardless of the existence of work/life balance programs and policies. Now, three months into this current normal, many supervisors are making decisions to continue remote work even after the COVID-19 restrictions and protocols are lifted.

JB: I believe the biggest positive change is that this shift in the way we work has presented an opportunity to really examine how we work – what’s effective and what’s not, what can be improved, and what can be adapted further, even if we remain in this new virtual environment. It has started a dialogue that’s causing us to re-examine what had become our norms and these types of challenges breed innovation.

What do you think is the most negative issue that remote working has revealed about how we work together?

CA: Remote work has revealed just how easy and common it is for people to keep strict lines between work and home. While work is a professional environment, workplace culture experts and IO psychologists have long discussed the benefits of peers, colleagues, and even supervisors and non-supervisors developing professional, interpersonal relationships as a means of enhancing collaboration and morale. Now, three months into this current normal, we are seeing just how isolated people are by virtue of our preference to not, in fact, work together. For while a lot is being said about the power of collaboration via virtual tools, this has been, by and large, all about work and tasks. Meanwhile, loneliness, isolation, and depression are setting in for people and they are not finding any relief from their workmates.

JB: Working remotely can amplify the disconnection that some people may have experienced when they were working in the same physical location with their teams. In many ways, it can be easy to be a lot more dismissive in our actions and interactions when we’re limited to emails, texts, and video calls and when we lack the benefit of casual encounters to gauge people’s moods or get a sense of their wellbeing. This just drives home the importance of being more mindful of each other as people and teammates, and not overlooking each other in our efforts to sustain our mission.

We hope you’ll join us for Session 2: The Real World Meets the Work World

Thursday, July 23rd (10:00 am – 12:00 pm PST / 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm EST)

Description: As our nation faces a pandemic and the intensifying fight against racial injustice, people from all walks of life are being impacted in ways we have never seen before. Under this constant strain, real life doesn’t stop where our work life begins. Now more than ever, it is critical that we create an environment that acknowledges the real challenges that people are facing. In this session, we’ll discuss what can be done to provide a safe space for authentic dialogue while maintaining mission focus.

Register Here

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