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Inclusion in virtual teams – why the problem isn’t going away

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Our current series of articles follows a conversation with TPC Leadership Partner Hilary Harvey, speaking into the future of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). Here we turn our attention to the importance of inclusion in virtual teams.

Inclusion in virtual teams

It’s easy for leaders to misjudge how inclusive they are, since so many micro inequalities occur unconsciously. The Harvard Business Review showcased research a few years ago which revealed that leaders who demonstrate non-inclusive behaviours are often the same leaders who overrate their personal value for D&I – and vice versa. 

And when it comes to virtual teams, this problem is exacerbated.

“People are not employees only, they’re whole people, and we need to consider them as such,” says Hilary. “But more than ever, team leaders are overly focused on delivering the work. As a result, without meaning to, they overlook inclusion.”

The productivity grind

Inclusion often goes hand in hand with flexibility. So while virtual teams have their drawbacks, the flexibility they offer employees to work from anywhere lends itself to inclusion. 

Since the start of the pandemic in the UK, many businesses have no longer required their employees to relocate for work. This has opened up opportunities for more people, particularly for those who do not already live in London. In our own TPC Leadership programs, meanwhile, people have been able to virtually attend from all over – as far as Kenya and Syria.

But according to a study of over 3m people in the US, the beginning of the pandemic also corresponded with an increase in meetings, emails and hours worked. And as everyone has adjusted to a new normal, it’s debatable whether we’ve adopted healthy practices. 

“There’s a pressure to be constantly working, available and productive,” says Hilary. “So now you can see people attending virtual meetings who are answering their emails at the same time. They’re here but not here, present but not really.”

Hilary notes how back-to-back meetings are much more prevalent these days. It’s a regular occurrence for people to jump off a call with one group to attend another a minute later. There are fewer natural breaks in the day, and the unconscious pressure to be productive often snatches away whatever remains.

Right now there’s an overriding sense that ‘in order to get this done, I can’t take any breaks’. So team leaders need to actively push against that: to encourage their team to take breaks and to consider what demands they are making might undermine that encouragement.

Who breaks first?

“People can only give to a certain point, and then they’ll burn out or leave,” says Hilary, “Some people will look for another job, some will take stress leave, others will become resentful. But everyone’s mental and emotional health will suffer.”

It’s a shaky foundation and it won’t create a good basis for inclusive practices. Inclusivity makes it easier for people to show up to work as their whole selves. But if we’re already working those people to the bone, it’s going to be hard for them to show up at all. 

To create an inclusive culture, leaders need to go out of their way to make people feel included – and encourage others to do the same. The trouble is that when people are frayed, instead of reaching out they turn their attention inward. And if everyone is feeling stretched to breaking point, those who are overlooked most – parents, women, introverts, almost-pensioners or ethnic minorities – are the ones who will break first.

“If your team’s mental and emotional health is suffering,” says Hilary, “you don’t have a productive or inclusive workforce.”

Inclusion in the hybrid space

So if remote working is heightening the pressure, is the answer to return to the office? Not necessarily, Hilary says. It would be easy to assume people will be able to slot back into the way things were before. But transitions are not easy. We’ve had to change the way we live already, and now many of us need to adapt again.

So whether businesses are transitioning to an office or hybrid workspace, it’s important for them to help people to return to work well. People still have parenting responsibilities, routines that work best for them, even pets to look after. The more that leaders can do to ensure people feel seen and heard, the better.

There are two competing dynamics going on,” says Hilary. “There are leaders looking to go back to the way everything was before the pandemic. And there are leaders who are looking to recreate what normal looks like: those who recognised the flaws of original work patterns and financial models.”

Unilever has recently launched a new system of work called U-Work. Offering employees contracts instead of jobs, it gives them a core of minimum guaranteed work and benefits, but it also gives them flexibility to take on project work as and when they wish to. The new system was successfully trialled in an office space and in a factory, so now Unilever plans to roll it out across 10 countries. 

It’s flexibility is designed to be inclusive of all generations, those who are training early in their career, those transitioning into retirement and those who are bearing most of the parenting responsibilities – who, Hilary notes, are still overwhelmingly women. 

The Unilever model won’t necessarily be the answer for other organisations. The right way ahead will depend on your context, your industry and your people. But to be inclusive, we can’t revert back to pre-pandemic rigidity, nor can we afford to leave virtual teams to their own devices.

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

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