As employees continue to work remotely for the foreseeable future due to the coronavirus crisis, diverse employees and new hires are at a greater risk of falling into a disconnected state, because their social ties and sense of belonging may have already been tenuous before everyone was sent home. Now, with racial unrest at the forefront of discussions, employees may feel even more alienated from their colleagues.
To help cultivate a sense of belonging for all employees, companies should adopt three key facets of inclusion: awareness, authenticity and accountability.
In a work environment, awareness means being aware of whom you’re relying on and whom you might be inadvertently excluding. Everyone has his or her own established patterns and biases. During times of stress, it is natural to default to the comfort zones where these habits live. However, this behavior has the potential to neglect others and cause them to feel alienated. To help cultivate belonging in the organization, employees need to first recognize these patterns so that they can break out of them.
To do so, the first step is to be more aware of whom you regularly connect with, work with or check in on. Once you have identified those “usual suspects,” reach out to individuals whom you have not interacted with lately, even if there is no business to handle with them. For example, consider inviting someone to a meeting he or she doesn’t have to attend but might enjoy or get value from participating in. For leaders, it could mean reaching out to more junior employees in the organization. An invitation can go a long way toward making someone feel included.
In virtual meetings, be aware of who is participating and who is not. For those employees who are not, consider sending a private message to check in with them. This communication allows you to check in on them without putting them on the spot like you would if the meeting were in person.
To demonstrate authenticity, include time during meetings to check in personally with team members. Every person has been touched by the coronavirus crisis or is feeling the pain and stress of the violence against members of the Black community in some way, but it is also a deeply individual experience and might impact some more than others. Allowing ourselves, our colleagues and even our clients to be where they are mentally and share about it authentically is critical now more than ever.
Code-switching is emotionally draining in good times, with 66% of employees saying that the “pressure to mute some aspect of their identities” at work “significantly undermine[s] their sense of self.” This challenge is amplified in difficult times. Set aside time at the beginning of meetings — whether one-on-one or group meetings — to check in and connect with each other.
If you are a team leader, consider sharing first and being open, authentic and vulnerable about your own challenges. In this way, you will give others permission to do the same. Another way to create these connections is to institute optional weekly check-in calls that have no set agenda. These calls can provide the space needed to connect with one another, ask questions, voice concerns and share ideas.
Lastly, being accountable means being responsible for your privilege. Be aware that when it comes to the pandemic, we are all weathering the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat. Some colleagues might have been ill, have loved ones who have been ill or have lost loved ones to COVID-19, while others have not. Some are homeschooling children, while others are not. Some have had family members who have lost jobs or income, while others have not. And when it comes to the global protests in the name of ending systemic racism and police brutality, there is a spectrum of emotions that will govern how employees from all backgrounds may be feeling.
When you share authentically about how you are experiencing either of these crises, be especially mindful of how your experience may be a reflection of a privilege you enjoy, like time to yourself, access to personal outdoor space, financial security, or your experience as someone with a different background or of a different ethnicity. Be aware of and accountable for your privilege. If you aren’t, it could make others feel less connected to you and your organization at a time when we all need to feel like we belong.
For leaders, it’s critical to set the tone and modeling what inclusion looks like. Inclusive leaders actively use their position to include employees who otherwise might be overlooked and challenge their teams to hold each other accountable.
With so much uncertainty and unrest occurring in our society today, it is important that we all come together and make sure all of our colleagues are receiving the help and support they need. Creating an inclusive work environment is an important step in to enabling everyone to thrive today and through whatever challenge we face next.