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How to Build an Inclusive Remote Work Environment

Right now, we’re all learning to work remote and, despite the success, it’s not been without a little stress. As leaders, we’ve had to adapt our strategies and learn new approaches to managing remote teams in a way that keeps everyone included, and that’s what I want to share today.

Remote working is difficult, as the absence of direct conversation and a group presence have a big impact on overall morale. Introverts may think it’s heaven, but extroverts are likely finding it to be a curse – and everyone is starting to feel the strain of the situation.

It also helps that (as of writing) it’s Stress Awareness Month. Here are some of my essential strategies, as well as a few recommended by some respected colleagues of mine, that I really can’t – ahem – stress highly enough.

Why Leaders Are Needed Now More Than Ever

These are stressful times – your team needs support, not just orders. A good leader balances the necessities of work while still prioritizing well-being. Here’s a short snippet from Coach Gabriela Mueller Mendoza’s upcoming guide to compassionate leadership:

“It’s important to make decisions and implement measures with the well-being of local and global communities in mind, not just those in your office.

Leaders who do that send a clear signal: people first. Leaders who outweigh benefits and hesitate about these measures are not only exposing their people but killing trust in their teams.

Everyone will deal with this situation differently, so in the context of recent events, organizations should enable and empower employees to make decisions around their work, life integration, and health in the best way that suits them.”

Create a Social Capital

What do I mean by a ‘social capital’? I mean a designated communication channel that is the place for conversations and building relationships among the team.

  • It keeps communication open, so people aren’t only sharing in private conversations
  • It gives people a chance to chime in on conversations that otherwise wouldn’t happen
  • It’s the closest we can get to recreating the natural atmosphere of working side-by-side.

On that note, I don’t need to tell you to use an internal communicator (more than enough people have recommended what to use), but I can recommend keeping your photograph up to date. It’s a small factor that makes a big impact – people want to remember what their colleagues look like (and, if you decide to drastically change your hairstyle, they want to see the new you as well!)

Be Aware of How You Communicate

A subtle comment is the perfect example of a micro-behaviour that can impact remote employees. Whether by email or communicator, you should write with clarity – be clear, detailed and descriptive regarding what you need. Your recipient needs to know what you want, when and why. Don’t leave anything to interpretation.

A key factor here that many might not consider is honesty. As Ana Maria Montero, Presenter at CNNMoney Switzerland, elegantly put it:

“Communication is now more important than ever in reducing stress. On the work front, establish clear expectations about your output for both you and your managers. Avoid further misunderstandings by being honest about what limitations you might face when working from home and the challenges it may present for you in particular.”

I’d also add that a please (prosze!) and thank you (dziekuje!) never hurt anyone, either.

Be Emphatic

Let’s not transfer our emotions from the task, another call or home to the next caller. Whenever you speak (or write – but emotions often come out the most strongly when we’re verbal) we need to practice a strong degree of empathy. Your caller may not know what you mean or why you’re calling. They may also be busy, currently finishing a task or just trying to solve a little Armageddon at home.

In emotions, we reach for understanding – this is where we need to show it as a leader. We need to separate our concerns regarding case X from person B. The ability to park emotions is highly useful for avoiding misunderstandings.

Talk – but Also Listen

On a similar note, communication is always a two-way process.

Here’s some excellent advice, courtesy of Nadia Fisher, the founder of Witty Works – a platform for female STEM talents in Switzerland:

“An inclusive leader communicates over and over again – with words and actions – that it is normal if people cannot be productive. It is already an achievement if they can do about 50% of their normal tasks. Many people have double obligations now at home and there is a lot of mental load due to the uncertain development of the pandemic. Don’t put them under pressure at any time! Talk to them a lot about their home situation. Just listening, without giving advice, helps to cope.”

Be a Leader of Optimism

You can’t demand people to be happy –it can only be encouraged. Here’s something I learned from Manuela Leonhard, the Assistant to the Mayor here in Zurich:

“I try to lift up everyone’s spirit by spreading my own optimism and encourage people to think of 5 positive things out of the current situation each day. Write them down and reread them. The more positive things we see and read, the more it lifts up our mind.”

Be Impartial, Consistent and Transparent

This one should be a no-brainer, but it’s essential to keep in your mind at all times.

  • Impartial – are communicating fairly to your team? Is everyone updated?
  • Consistent – as a leader, people expect regular updates and assignments. Don’t let them down.
  • Transparent – in times like this, there’s no room for secrets. Hiding knowledge only hinders the team and nothing creates stress like being kept out of the loop.

Emma Arriola, Scientific Director for the Oncology Development at AbbVie, recommended good communication from clear transparency:

“I find a lot of stress is generated when I am left out of the loop so I can be working on a project without having all the information I should have. It really helps to have tools to share documents, spreadsheets, etc where the whole team has visibility to all reports and meeting minutes, etc.”

Set Expectations

Remote work is still work – your team needs to know what is expected and what isn’t. For example, understanding what hours they should work (with some degree of flexibility, as homelife also happens – don’t pretend it doesn’t), how they should log work and a procedure for reporting, logging in etc.

If in doubt – never assume what can be quickly explained!

Respect People’s Time

Speaking of working hours, without a physical separation of home and work, it’s important to know when ‘worktime’ ends. Make sure your team stops working at the end of the day – force them to log out of applications if you must!

This also applies to you – of course, you need to be reachable in emergencies, but this isn’t the same as staying in front of the laptop from dawn to dusk.

Online Meetings Should Be Visual

When we see each other, we can read more than just what’s spoken or typed out. We can see body language and the fact that we’re all paying attention. This makes us more confident and informs us in a way that isn’t possible without visuals.

Dedicate Some (Work)Time for Socializing

Let’s face it, there are a few moments in the workday when we take time to know our colleagues, see how they’re doing and otherwise socialize – these quick catchups are great for morale! At Unity Group, we have dedicated virtual coffee mornings with our teams. It lets us see how everyone is doing, as well as communicate team wide. It’s a great way to ease-in to the working day.

A Little Trust Goes a Long Way!

Finally, I’d like to end with some advice from the ever-wise Sue Johnson (Leader in Inclusion and Gender Balance Advisory at PwC Switzerland and UK) in one of her recent LinkedIn articles on inclusion and remote working:

“Companies should always remember why they hired their people. If they have entrusted them with their products, brands and services, they should also trust them in doing their job.”

I hope these tips help!

For now, stay remote, but stay open!

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