4 ways to foster inclusion in a remote work environment

Most organizations have shifted to remote work in an effort to protect employee health and ensure the continuity of operations during the COVID-19 outbreak. And this shift to remote work doesn’t look like it will go away once the pandemic ends. Gartner analysis finds that 48% of employees will work remotely after the pandemic, compared to 30% who worked remotely pre-pandemic.

Given this, HR leaders are focused on understanding and managing the employee experience for an increasingly remote workforce. A critical driver of productivity and engagement in this difficult time is inclusion, which encompasses psychological safety, trust and belonging.

Inclusion isn’t just important because it impacts how employees feel or how engaged they are, it also affects critical talent outcomes. Gartner research reveals that a 20% increase in organizational inclusion translates into a 6.2% increase in on-the-job effort, a 5% increase in employees’ intent to stay with the organization and a nearly 3% increase in individual employee performance.

To foster inclusion in today’s remote work environment, HR leaders should consider the following tactics:

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Gartner analysis shows that 96% of organizations have ERGs, which provides an opportunity for HR leaders to engage with ERG leaders and members to listen and diagnose for new or different employee sentiments, perceptions and activities. While ERGs are traditionally set up to connect employees with shared identities, they can also be used to engage non-members by providing support and guidance on emerging challenges.

HR leaders should identify the ERGs that have the greatest potential to reveal critical insights into the new employee experience. This can include utilizing pulse surveys to understand how different groups of employees are experiencing the new remote work environment. Questions should focus on the ability to be productive, required accommodations for differently abled employees and “must-have” organizational support.

ERGs are often best positioned to support new or emerging employee needs. For example, Working Parents ERGs may be able to offer ideas and guidance to employees who find themselves caring for a sick relative for the first time. Holding virtual lunches or webinars provides an opportunity for members to share tips and best practices on how to balance caregiving and work responsibilities, identify non-obvious benefits for employees to use and share ways to flex work schedules.

HR should also tap into ERGs to facilitate much-needed social connection, both among members and with non-members. Beyond increasing awareness of different identities, these meetings and events may be one of the few opportunities for employees to disconnect from their stressful work-from-home situations and connect with their co-workers in more informal settings.

Create Virtual Opportunities to Support Belonging

A recent Gartner survey shows that 25% of HR leaders have found that the pandemic has had a negative impact on mental health, and we expect that statistic to grow as the pandemic drags on. Belonging is a critical aspect of overall inclusion and engagement. Employees need to feel that people and the organization care about them.

See also: Is belonging the new D&I?

In a traditional work environment, managers and employees demonstrate care through in-person social interactions, such as stopping by a colleague’s cubicle to say hello, scheduling a coffee chat with a friend or reconnecting with the team through a work-sponsored social event. However, in a remote work environment, demonstrating care is far more challenging.

HR should work with managers and business leaders on ways to simulate social interactions that naturally occur on-site by holding virtual events that encourage connectedness. Virtual coffee chats, happy hours, breakfasts and team events are relatively easy ways to encourage a group of any size to convene and bond with one another. Today’s virtual environment means that employees are joining from their homes, which can encourage people to come as they are and showcase their whole selves.

Reassess How the Organization Can Be Inclusive in the Current Environment

Today’s uncertain business setting and the abrupt shift to remote work is impacting different groups of employees in different ways. HR leaders need to determine how to ensure new business and talent processes remain inclusive.

The head of D&I should partner with the CHRO and other senior HR leaders to reassess how the organization can further support inclusion internally and externally. Benefits, work-from-home resources and other offerings should be reviewed to ensure they continue to accommodate employees with diverse needs. Working parents, employees with caregiving responsibilities, sick employees, quarantined employees, employees with disabilities and other talent segments may require new or different support as they work from home or on-site.

Senior business leaders should work together to (re)communicate the organization’s commitment to inclusion. Proactive communications should highlight available resources to employees, managers and leaders to help them foster inclusion in a remote, high-stress setting.

Equip Managers and Leaders with Tools for Inclusion

Employees are increasingly relying on their managers and leaders for direction and guidance on how to remain productive and engaged in this new work environment. Inclusion is no exception, particularly given that Gartner research shows seven out of 10 employees say their organization fails to inform them of opportunities to promote inclusion in their day-to-day work.

HR leaders must partner with managers to help them translate and visualize what inclusion looks like as they conduct typical activities in a virtual setting. For example, when leading team meetings, managers might consider setting expectations that they will call on each team member to respond to a specific set of questions but offer a couple of ways in which team members can communicate (e.g., via audio or via the chat feature of the online meeting platform) to accommodate different communication styles and acknowledge challenging work-from-home settings.

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Gartner has identified five inclusive leadership behaviors managers can use as a potential starting point:

  • Support Team Growth: Allow team members to make specific decisions on how they will work from home and ask them to share their ideas for how to conduct virtual check-ins, connect and socialize with the team, contribute to team meetings and maintain overall productivity.
  • Foster Team Accountability: Brainstorm how to assess performance in a virtual setting and communicate to team members while asking for their input and feedback.
  • Network Management: Encourage team members to leverage ERGs (e.g., working parent/caregiver ERGs) and connect them to other internal and external sources that provide additional support and guidance.
  • Interpersonal Integrity: Communicate the importance of greater transparency and open communication in a virtual work setting.
  • Productive Conflict: Give team members tips for effective email, chat and other virtual communication.

While every organization is facing uncertainty, employee experience needs to remain a top priority, particularly from a D&I standpoint. Ensuring that employees feel connected to each other and the business, and cared for by their employer, is critical to retaining top talent and achieving greater productivity.