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Maintaining an inclusive culture from home

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Without centralized working spaces for face to face interaction, what does that mean for our progress on creating inclusive workplaces? Does tackling the COVID-19 challenge mean that D&I becomes non-priority? Our Dorothy Burwell explores the communications challenges to fostering an inclusive culture and what leaders should do before it becomes too late.

Into the wilderness

There was a meme circulating on the internet a couple of weeks ago that asked a typical business question.

While the post was circulated in jest, the underlying point remains true, never before have businesses been forced to embrace change in day-to-day working at such a rapid pace. That’s even considering the much talked about ‘digital transformation’ that corporates have been undergoing for the last decade or more.

Some businesses are more prepared than others as early adopters of flexible working. Tech businesses, consulting firms and others that frequently have staff working across varied locations, logging in through a myriad of cloud services, have been able to spring into action quickly.

Nevertheless, without centralised working spaces for face to face interaction, what does that mean for our progress on creating inclusive workplaces? Does tackling the immediate challenge to the bottom line mean that D&I becomes non-priority?

With so much disruption, it’s easy to push D&I to the bottom of the priority list but, as any good leader is painfully aware, with lower touch interaction it becomes more important than ever to the success and productivity of the business that everyone feel part of the team. Without the typical office structure, it is easy to default to well-worn relationships and “go-to” people leading to isolation and reduced productivity from others.

As we move into what may be the first full month of home working for some, what can be done to avoid the erosion in engagement and team culture and the inevitable impact on relationships with customers and other stakeholders?

Keep sight of the fundamentals

The definition or gold standard of inclusion in the workplace continues to evolve and varies depending on environment, but there are some fundamental principles that most organisations and D&I professionals agree on: fostering full participation and access, unbiased decision making, valuing and welcoming differences.

Without the same natural opportunities for face to face engagement, effective communication becomes even more critical to fostering inclusive and collaborative culture.

So, what should leaders be thinking about now?

Recognise differences are magnified in the home environment. As obvious as it may seem, within the workplace it is easy to overlook that home lives for employees vary widely and beyond the simple (but important) question of whether or not there are small children who now need to be home-schooled. Uneven access to space, technology, competing home demands and cultural norms mean we have to be sensitive to the varying needs and concerns of employees. For example, minority households are more likely to be multi-generational, meaning that there may be vulnerable older adults who need care and have reduced access to support during the pandemic.

How do your communications to your employees demonstrate the empathy and flexibility that are required when resources are not evenly shared? Are your managers prepared to navigate these new conversations? Are you asking the right questions at the right frequency to spot the issues that inevitably arise due to this new way of working?

Watch out for old (bad) habits. Leaders must actively work to go beyond their natural inclination and engage those who might be left out. Research[i] shows that 40% of employees felt somewhat isolated before this crisis. In a remote working environment, it’s easy for team members to become even more isolated -- and for others not to notice.

Your communications structures need to have formal checks on this behaviour as human instinct can easily override good intentions until new habits are truly engrained.

Don’t miss opportunities to deepen understanding. Homeworking is not all a cautionary tale. With most corporates promoting video conferencing to maintain a semblance of human contact, we are being invited into each other’s home now daily. This can present fantastic opportunities to communicate our openness to other cultures and ways of living.

Beyond feeling included in the conversation, it is also a chance to help everyone feel that they belong. When people feel valued as their unvarnished and true selves, they are more confident to share ideas, innovate and inspire.

Demonstrate you are living your purpose. You cannot purport to live one culture internally and demonstrate a complete lack of understanding externally or vice versa. While impact of COVID-19 is being felt globally, its ill-effects magnify the uneven access that various communities have to healthcare, nutrition and other basic services. All businesses are being called to help share the societal load at this time, but is your business demonstrating that it understands the varied needs of its local communities? Will your customers or other stakeholders remember that you were part of the solution when the dust settles?

Dorothy Burwell is a Partner in our London office helping our clients across industries better connect with their stakeholders as well as communicate their strategy and purpose with clarity and conviction. She sits on the firm’s global diversity committee, has been included in Green Park’s Top 100 BAME Leaders in Business, EMPower’s Top 100 Ethnic Minority Executives and sits on the board of Which?, the UK’s largest independent consumer rights organization.