Remote Workforce Inclusion Requires Combination of Tech Tools, Human Touch

The transition to a hybrid work environment and the proliferation of remote work means the talent pool is no longer limited by geography.

This also means the best talent won’t come from homogenous backgrounds, but from often radically different backgrounds that add unique experience and perspective to an organization.

Building an inclusive remote workplace is essential because to attract talent, they must first feel welcome.

Beyond the diversity question, this means also ensuring that all employees are supported according to their individual needs and strengths, whether that means training, guidance, advancement opportunities, professional development, or any combination of these things.

Supriya Goswami, vice president of product marketing at Whatfix, a digital adoption platform provider, explains that communications technologies can inadvertently obstruct the type of casual collaboration and interaction that was commonplace in office environments.

“This, combined with the reality of remote work, can make people feel isolated,” she says. “If a person comes from a minority background and this dynamic prevents them from meeting people in their community or who might relate to them, it can produce a very isolating effect.”

Most Important: How Tech Is Used

Rather than what technology an organization uses, the determining factor for inclusion outcomes is most often how a technology is used.

The same tools that facilitate collaboration among small groups can be used to form larger affinity groups that transcend traditional boundaries like a specific team or department.

Goswami says leveraging these technologies to allow employees to seek and find a community outside of their specific work function can contribute tremendously to an inclusive environment.

Ingrid Laman, vice president in the Gartner HR practice, points out that communication tools can only enable inclusivity if organizations set the expectation and the accountability for inclusion.

“For instance, using meeting platforms like Zoom, WebEx, and Teams can help you include others in a scalable fashion,” she says. “Inviting others to a virtual meeting is not inclusive in and of itself. It’s what you do in that meeting that fosters inclusion.”

Recording the session, using closed captioning, allowing the use of both audio and chat to participate, asking someone to take notes and share them with others, soliciting input and feedback, and accommodating different communication styles can help improve employee perceptions of inclusion.

She adds that simple actions such as creating ground rules for running virtual meetings and developing a list of “do’s and don’ts” to ensure everyone feels included can help create the right remote work environment.

Get Feedback from Remote Workers

Laman explains that the first step to assessing how the remote workforce feels about inclusion is to ask and listen to remote workers about their experience.

Surveys, focus groups, one-on-one conversations, journals, and persona-based journey mapping can provide organizations with detailed insights on whether remote employees feel like they are part of an inclusive work environment and culture.

This includes employees if they feel rewarded and asking recognized, if they feel others respect and value their opinions, or if their ideas are given fair consideration by others and can express their true feelings at work.

“Their varying levels of agreement will help you understand your current state and which elements of inclusion you should focus on,” Laman says. “You can also assess perceptions of inclusivity using a more passive approach.”

Pulling data-driven insights from social media sites like Glassdoor, LinkedIn, and other “public” internal sites (eg, frequently asked questions of HR, rate of increase employee relation issues) can provide organizations with an unfiltered understanding of employee perceptions of inclusion.

“There is no universal solution to inclusion. You have to start with understanding the employee experience of remote workers and the root causes to the inclusion challenges they face,” Laman said. “Once you have a deeper understanding of both the challenges and opportunities, you can then determine the right solution set for improving employee perceptions of inclusion.”

Goswami added that the most crucial element to getting the ball rolling on remote inclusivity is organization buy-in.

This means reducing friction in workflows is essential to creating an environment where employees can use tools with comfort and efficiency to connect with their coworkers, allowing the social dimensions of inclusivity to arise.

“Employees need to be able to use the tools they’re given efficacy,” she explains. “After all, remote work is entirely predicated on the tools that facilitate it.”

Hidden Challenges

From the perspective of Timur Kovalev, chief technology officer at network security firm Untangle, remote work can also mask challenges an employee may be facing that would have been easier to recognize in an office.

The lack of face-to-face interactions makes it more difficult to build relationships and be inclusive, which can lead to employees feeling disconnected, lonely, and isolated, and this in turn can increase stress and foster distrust.

“Leaders need to create and communicate a plan for how hybrid work will work in their organization,” he says. “This will help employee expectations, define the parameters of remote work, specify approved technology and lay out the cybersecurity protocols to keep data and people safe.”

He adds management will also need to evolve to understand the distributed population.

This includes understanding the importance of flexibility to employees and learning to spot issues and deal with them differently than in the office.

In addition, management will need more understanding, patience, and empathy for employees and their specific challenges. Remote and hybrid work can mask challenges, including isolation, an employee may be facing that would have been easier to recognize in an office.

“Until organizations have the tools, management skills, and corporate culture needed, inclusion will remain an issue,” Kovalev says. “However, companies do see the value in hybrid work and are evolving and adapting technology and processes to make sure it is inclusive and successful for their business.”

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