Reimagining the virtual workplace around inclusion and engagement

While the COVID-19 crisis has tested organizations and people in multiple ways, employees have shown resiliency and determination, proving that they can be highly effective in virtual environments. However, flexible working models do not automatically drive inclusion or employee engagement. In fact, they can undermine those goals if not deliberately and thoughtfully addressed.

Inclusion has gained importance as organizations realize its link to engagement. Employees who feel very included are nearly three times as likely to say they feel excited by and committed to their organizations than those who do not. But traditional efforts to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) often assume that people work together in the same physical space. The virtual or hybrid future looks and feels different. Below are a few opportunities that leaders—one of three major shapers of an employee’s experience of inclusion—can pursue.

Considering the positives and negatives

Virtual/hybrid work has had an equalizing effect for many employees. Some of the ways we are seeing this happen through our own research, as well as media reports, anecdotes, client stories, and other findings, include:

  • Growing emphasis on the end product, giving an individual’s work a chance to shine. Leaders are no longer managing by proximity or constantly checking in to understand progress against deliverables. Instead, they are providing more clarity on expectations and due dates/timelines from the beginning, then evaluating the results ‘offline’ and providing feedback. This helps create a more level playing field for all.
  • Eliminating the “head of the table” in meetings by making everyone an equal square on a screen, empowering people to speak and be heard.
  • Increasing adoption of inclusive meeting norms to ensure that the right people are present and heard. For example, leaders are actively monitoring who is and isn’t sharing their point of view during meetings, then pinging ‘quiet’ participants to solicit their input.

A global organization with traders in Houston, London, and Singapore, for instance, has found that virtual work has helped break down geographic siloes. Pre-pandemic meetings only included those who could attend in person and thus were constrained by geography and room size. Now, in-person meetings include a virtual element, so key people can participate in the discussion regardless of physical location.

However, virtual/hybrid environments can exacerbate unconscious biases and create real challenges for diverse employees. For example:

  • Virtual relationships are often easier to maintain than to create, causing people to reinvest in existing relationships instead of forming new ones, ultimately reducing opportunities for new development and growth.
  • Connectivity can suffer among underrepresented groups as spontaneous interactions disappear.

To illustrate, a Black manager in a pharmaceutical company found that while working virtually allowed regular connections with teammates, informal interactions between Black colleagues in different parts of the business no longer occurred unless they were planned. Casual moments like going to lunch, walking to a meeting, or waiting for the elevator had vanished. The manager missed regularly seeing colleagues who look like him.

Reimagining our future work environments

To create inclusive and engaging virtual/hybrid working models, organizations must leverage the opportunities and manage the risks. Some ways we have seen organizations lean into this include:

  • Deploying inclusive communication norms by leveraging multiple fit-for-purpose communication channels to help employees feel and be heard. For example:
    • Incorporating chat in meetings can lower barriers to speaking. Sharing a perspective verbally often influences what others decide to share, especially if the first person to speak is the most senior.
    • Creating open and informal channels for giving kudos, asking questions, and connecting allows for the casual but deliberate recognition of teams and individuals, learning, and networking that can otherwise get lost in the virtual world.
    • Recording and sharing important meetings allows employees across time zones to engage when it suits them.
  • Enhancing psychological safety by checking in on employees and colleagues in a deliberate manner so that none are forgotten and more are included.

Virtual work doesn’t have to undermine inclusion efforts, if inclusion is consciously embedded into how we work regardless of where we work. While reimagining the workplace, also rethink approaches to DE&I, so the new normal can be a better normal for all.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice