When it Comes to Remote Working, Inclusion is More Important Than Ever
In pre-COVID times (remember them?), working from home was something you often did if you ‘needed to get some work done’.
It’s a rather contradictory notion – not going to work in order to get more work done – but that’s what we did.
We could get fully immersed in the task at hand, and be free from the constant stream of interruption that typically comes when working in an office – especially an open-plan office.
“Previously, working from home was about not talking to people,” says Jo Thomas, Chief Operating Officer at the Australian Institute of Business.
“I used to work from home when I had things to do. I’d go home, nobody had talked to me, and I’d write that paper or prepare that report.”
For many people, working from home was the exception.
Now it’s become the rule, the terms of engagement have been turned on their head. And so has the psychology behind it.
The peace and quiet that was once the liberating factor of working from home may now be stifling. One person in your team may be living alone and hasn’t had a great deal of human interaction over recent weeks. Others may be experiencing the opposite – surrounded by family, kids and pets 24/7, and be yearning for some mental space.
Which is why it’s imperative as a leader to bring people in close – perhaps closer than you’ve ever brought them – to ensure your remote team is working to the best of its ability.
“What I’ve found with my team, and me being at home full-time, is that communication is more important than it ever has been before,” says Jo.
“People look to their leader for guidance and reassurance. I’m having far more incidental chats and check-ins than I would be doing if I was walking around the office.
“As a leader, you have to be prepared to fill that void of companionship that being in a team has given your people in the past. Your role as an emotional support is increased.”
A key to ensuring fluid and regular communication is to ensure the channels you have available are effective and fit for purpose – and you let people choose the communication method that best suits them.
“We primarily use Zoom and Slack to communicate, and as a leader, it’s vital that you are where your people are,” says Jo. “If they naturally migrate to one channel over another, you go there, too.
Also, says Jo, it’s important not to become prescriptive about what channel is used for what purpose.
“Not everyone wants to be face-to-face with you on video. Not everyone wants to be verbal. Let people come to you on the channel they prefer,” she says.
Another element of inclusion when working remotely is the understanding that, for every video call you’re on, you’re inviting people into your home, and others are inviting you into theirs, too.
And with it brings a level of intimacy not usually experienced when working in the office.
“The line between personal and professional lives is being blurred, and we have to be mindful of the fact that some people will be very comfortable with sharing their homes with you, others not so much.
“However, this time is about being really authentic, letting people in to see a little bit of your life. It’s about showing people you’re human, that you have kids and grandkids and pets and that you care when you see theirs.
“I was on a video meeting with some external people the other day, and a teenager came in and then sort of dropped down and tried to scoot past the bottom of the screen!”
Ultimately, your approach to inclusion stems from your culture – how you engage with people and how much you care about who they are as people, and this period of time offers a huge opportunity for leaders to re-emphasise, establish or reset their culture.
“Many businesses really do struggle with inclusion generally,” says Jo.
“When you talk about diversity and inclusion, there’s a significant gap in the ‘inclusion’ aspect.
“Inclusion is about bringing those people in for who they are, not trying to get them to conform to your stereotypes. Inclusion isn’t about assimilation.
“For people to feel comfortable enough to share their diverse experiences and ideas, they need to feel included.”
One positive to be gained from our COVID working experience is that our way of working together as a team, and as leaders with our teams, will be reset.
And if the people who were on the outer now feel included, if barriers of communication have been broken down and everyone feels more comfortable with each other, then that’s going to serve businesses incredibly well over the coming years.