Why it is essential to design inclusive virtual workplaces

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In the first of our new blog series focusing on virtual teams, we talk to TPC Leadership Associate Partners Catherine Bardwell and Valeria Cardillo Piccolino about diversity and inclusion and the importance for virtual teams.

Diversity and inclusion in the virtual workplace

In recent years diversity and inclusion has become a mainstream topic for HR and large organisations. But regardless of how much advocates of diversity and inclusion (D&I) connect with the values, their efforts to bring change are often met with scepticism.

The real question that each business needs to answer when starting a D&I project is ‘What’s in it for us, as a company, and moreover, why is it important now more than ever?’

“Businesses have a choice when it comes to inclusion,” says Valeria Cardillo Piccolino, a TPC Leadership Associate Partner. “They can have what I call a hygienic approach to inclusion – doing it for legal and marketing reasons – or they can tackle inclusion in a deeper way, tapping into the full potential of their people.”

Catherine Bardwell, a TPC Leadership Associate Partner adds, “Working in a company with colleagues and clients from all over the world requires leaders to become very curious. To become sensitive to the many different approaches and filters of perception that manifest from a mix of genders, cultures, ages and personality profiles.”

“And in the virtual space of video-call meetings” Catherine says, “where there is even less opportunity for personal connection… the issue of whether people actually feel included is more pressing than ever.”

Inclusivity requires curious attention

“Corporates that don’t want to just ‘tick the box’ should enact change at different levels,” says Catherine. “They need to create a governance system for inclusion. They need to provide training to make their leaders aware. They need to shape their cultural mindset so they can shift processes and systems, such as recruitment or the delegation of strategic projects.”

If a business is to take these significant steps forward, they need to understand what is at stake. 

Scott E. Page explains the dichotomy in The Diversity Bonus, saying that, “A failed business cannot advance any social causes. You know this as CEO, so your primary commitment will be to carry out the company’s mission… building a fair and just society will be secondary.”

Although we might feel justified in having a cause that is untouched by business concern, we create unnecessary friction for ourselves – pitting the bottom-line needs of our business against our ethics and ideals. Despite our noble intentions, our leadership teams and our operations will inevitably continue to prioritise the needs of the business above tackling inclusion. Too often, a business’ inclusion policy becomes a box-ticking exercise. 

Inclusivity is about more than reputation

Few are the businesses that do not wish to be seen as inclusive. The ever-improving methods of gathering data allow companies to measure their reputation among their customers and employees more than ever. And inclusivity is shown to move the needle.

A Bain & Company Net Promoter Score (NPS) report shows that “Having a CEO or executive team member who models inclusive behaviour can increase an employee Net Promoter Score by 59%, regardless of his or her own identity profile.”

But a reputation for inclusion does not necessarily translate into actual inclusion. At least not the extensive kind. Although many companies position themselves as inclusive, there is still a visibly lower Employee Net Promoter Score for BAME employees compared to Caucasian. And when intersectionality is taken into account, the surface-level adjustments that companies make are shown up. 

According to the same NPS report, among BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) women employees, the NPS is at minus 2%. Regardless of how companies are perceived – this is how they feel at ground level from behind a remote worker’s desk… and that is where inclusion matters right now. 

Designing inclusive organisation: capitalising on internal resources

Although it may sound bottom-line, the most crucial reason for inclusivity that businesses need to heed is operational. For our levels of inclusivity directly relate to our levels of engagement. “The less included I feel,” says Valeria, “the less I will contribute my ideas, the less I will disagree with a status quo mindset, the less I will correct the mistakes of others.” 

This is exaggerated even more in a virtual environment, where the window of opportunity to speak up is small and constrictive. 

Valeria poses five questions that, organisations should ask themselves as a starting point for the design of inclusive virtual workplaces:

  1. How are leaders ensuring each team member feels free to express ideas in a virtual environment?
  2. Are team members curious about different styles of communication and expression, or do they try to minimise differences?
  3. How are leaders promoting the expression of generative dissent and divergent opinions, so constructive conflicts can arise and challenge the status quo?
  4. How can leaders and team members promote a collaboration that doesn’t rely on ‘comfortable relationships’ between similar kinds of people? (So that strategic responsibilities are assigned based on a true competencies evaluation and merit)
  5. What processes and systems could enable teams to be a safe space to contribute and learn, for each one of its members, now that our ways of working have been revolutionised by Covid-19 crisis?.

There are gaps in our organisations. Places in which the potential of our teams remains untapped. Unless we realise how diversity and inclusion is directly related to this matter, we will never properly resolve either issue. 

There is a greater spectrum of intelligence available to us, if we will just have eyes to see it. Once we recognise what is at stake, we will have to prioritise inclusion. It was always an ethical prerogative, but now we understand that it’s a business one too.

Want more insight on how to move forward? Get in touch with us to find out how we can help.

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