Is it possible to create a sense of inclusion and belonging in the remote working world?

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The abrupt switch to remote and hybrid working, necessitated by the global pandemic, was initially met with vigour by organisations in the City.

Galvanised around this common enemy, and the need to find ways to continue business during the crisis, organisations and teams adapted surprisingly well in finding ways of operating remotely. But once it became apparent that the world of work had changed indefinitely, leaders started to realise that this brave new world had far-reaching implications beyond the need for technology which facilitated virtual connectivity. Belonging, inclusion and wellbeing, which had been on most organisations’ radar prior to COVID-19, were suddenly given precedence with the additional challenge of how to frame and develop these paradigms in a virtual world.

It was a momentous episode in the history of the City, where organisations had been centred around physical office space since the first ‘office blocks’ appeared in the mid 17th Century on Leadenhall Street where the Lloyd’s building stands today. There was a concern about the implications for culture, but perhaps this could be an opportunity to reframe the fundamentals of organisations to meet the needs of today. Rather than rigid ‘organisations’, what if we start to think about workplaces as constantly evolving ‘communities’?

Let’s think about it from a town or country community perspective. We know that there are many divisions and differences that exist in populations who share the same territory. In addition, there is competition for resources and power. These populations come together when they want to promote the needs of or defend the territory. We saw this when businesses, aligned around the shared purpose of keeping the business going in the face of crisis, made unprecedented progress in innovating and adapting in response. The difference was that on an individual level, people knew that it was in their interest and that of the wider organisation. Each individual felt a sense of meaning and collaborated around a shared purpose.

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With this is mind, to foster a sense of belonging in the remote or hybrid world of work, organisations and leaders can create community ‘citizenship’ by focusing on three principles:

  • A sense of agency: One of the upsides of remote working as a result of the lockdown was that many employees felt a greater sense of control about when and how they work. Leaders should harness this benefit by reframing their role to that of a facilitator – maximising talent, voice and wellbeing, with the employee feeling a sense of control over direction and decision-making. One simple question asked regularly by leaders can work wonders: How can I make your life better?
  • A shared concern for welfare and wellbeing:

Leaders must be aware of individual circumstances – people’s attitudes towards virtual working vary, and indeed for some, where perhaps home life has its own challenges, being there all the time can present specific difficulties.

Have organisation or team rules based on rules of engagement and protecting personal time. Notice if somebody appears to be working or communicating significantly outside of work hours and ask why. Although this sort of flexibility works for some people, if it happens too much in a team or organisation, others can start to feel that they must conform to this ‘norm’.

Facilitate employees checking in on one another. In a small team do this by team members making a commitment to do so. In larger organisations technology can facilitate – social media platform management company Buffer uses a functionality within Slack which pairs people automatically. They call it ‘pair calls’ – those who want to opt in are randomly paired with another employee once a week to chat about anything they want to.

  • A collective experience: Organisations and leaders should consider how they can create shared purpose and connectivity through ritual and routine. In times of fast-paced change people look for aspects of the world with stability and certainty. For example, teams could start each week with a virtual breakfast then end it on Fridays with an online meeting. A quick 10 minute team meet every morning can help maintain the shared sense of purpose. This idea of ritual and routine can also apply to organisation-wide comms.

Emotional connectivity doesn’t have to be all about technology. Knowing everyone is doing something at the same time creates a feeling of connectedness. Mid-afternoon is apparently when we are mostly likely to feel a sense of isolation, so encourage teams to collectively turn their attention to something different at this time.

Changes in ways of working expedited by the global pandemic are an opportunity to dismantle outdated organisational practices which dilute talent through layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and put the human experience at the heart of leadership.

Helen MayAbout the author

Helen May is the founder of diversity & inclusion consultancy, Belonging@Work and author of new book Everyone Included: Improve Belonging, Diversity & Inclusion in Your Team.

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