Imagine a time when you felt like you didn’t belong: Maybe you were new to a group of people who had known each other for years, you were visiting a family who spoke a different language, or you were attending a service in a faith that observed traditions you didn’t know. Uncertainty intensifies feelings of not belonging. Other people’s long-standing jokes seem exclusive, not being able to engage in conversation is alienating, following a step behind what everyone else is doing creates fears of being judged.
In times of global uncertainty, everyone is more vulnerable to feeling disconnected. Fostering an inclusive workplace becomes more important than ever; however, during times of crisis, investing in culture can be quickly set aside, chalked up as “nice to have” rather than “needs to have,” with focus on this delayed until the “real” business issues are addressed. Inclusive workplaces are much more than a luxury to make employees feel good, though. They are key to surviving challenging times where better decisions are made, employees are more engaged in building to successful outcomes, and consumer needs are better understood (and therefore met).
In our current state– with disrupted shifts, remote work, and not enough information– employees may feel less like they belong than ever before. If you are not intentionally including team members, you may find that just when you need employees to come together for the greater good, they disengage. Or, they stay through the crisis, but as soon as things start to return to “normal,” they leave for an environment that is more welcoming—one where inclusion is a priority all the time, not just when it is convenient for the people in charge.
Here are a few ways to stay focused on inclusion:
- Pay Attention to Who You Turn To: In tumultuous times, it is natural to seek the familiar. This might look like consistently turning to the one or two employees you know the best, have the most natural conversations with, or who share a similar way of thinking. While it feels like you are communicating frequently, by turning to the same employee over and over, others are left out of communication loops and you may miss key information or great ideas. If this happens in a newly-turned remote environment, it could result in days or weeks passing without direct connection to some individuals. While managing a team through crisis, intentional effort must be made to check in with every team member. Do not let out-of- sight become out-of-mind when there is physical distance between you and your team and do not assume they will contact you if they have questions or ideas. Schedule and adhere to regular contact with all team members, send summary emails about changing circumstances, and always ask your employees about their needs, what they are observing, and for their ideas.
- Acknowledge the Reality of Each Individual’s Situation: It keeps being said, “we are all in this together,” but the truth is that we are not. Sure, we are all in something together, but it is not the same thing: Some people are caring for newly at-home children, others are worrying about at-risk parents. Some have spouses working in healthcare with extended shifts and increased vulnerability, while others are married to restaurant employees and preoccupied by the lack of work. Your executives may be social distancing from home offices as branch employees greet coughing members in the lobby. We are all experiencing juggling acts we never anticipated, coordinating logistics with physical space and emotional and financial burdens. This is not business as usual. Leaders should assure employees that distractions and disruptions are understandable. On conference calls, dogs might bark, delivery drivers could ring doorbells, children will decide that the moment the conference call starts is exactly when they are starving to death and bored and need to know what will happen if they/grandma/the dog* contracts Covid-19. Tellers might need to step away from their work stations to take calls from home or deep breaths. It might seem obvious, but proactively convey that you recognize these extraordinary circumstances. Provide the opportunity for people to share what is impacting (and distracting) them and acknowledge you know they are doing the best they can. Offer grace and support to each human on your team and for the unique challenges they face.
- Change Your Policies (Or Put Them On Hold): If you review your policies right now, you may find many areas where current practice is outside of policy. For example, many remote work policies state that if children are home, there must be another care provider present. As we practice social distancing, this option is impractical. Do not leave employees wondering what policies do and not apply. By identifying policies (remote work, sick leave, employee overdrafts, etc.) that can be put on hold and communicating this hiatus to employees, you convey your awareness that people are facing unprecedented situations, as well as your trust that employees will continue to contribute as fully as possible—even without a policy guiding their behavior. This message of respect is critical for fostering feelings of inclusion.
- Recognize (but don’t accept) That It is Lonely at the Top: In a crisis, it can feel even lonelier at the top. As a leader, you are in a position to care for your team, the long-term interests of your business, and all the unique circumstances arising in your life outside of work. With so many professional development and networking opportunities canceled, it may be hard to access the support network you would normally turn to. A culture of inclusion requires engaged leaders who bring others in, though, so do not allow this feeling of isolation to translate to how you connect with your team. Take care of yourself by reaching out to other leaders to share ideas and bolster one another and bring that leadership back to your team.
Intentional effort is critical to creating an inclusive environment. This remains so important in uncertain times. What are you doing to build a workplace that keeps all of your team members connected, respected, and included?
*Information shared by my 8-year-old in our household between conference calls: There is no evidence from the CDC that the dog can contract or transmit COVID-19. Please do not take this as fact-checked medical or scientific research.