Working Virtually: Is it really a “great equalizer?”
Many are hailing the shift to virtual work as a silver-lining of the covid-19 era. Historically, it has been assumed that the online environment is more conducive to work/life balance, the emergence/honoring of introverted voices and increased inclusion across global teams.
Some have theorized that the pandemic’s disruption of “normal” will automatically shift established team dynamics to be more equitable and inclusive.
We only wish we could be that optimistic. Our own observation, our clients’ experience, and research is showing quite the opposite. In general, the power dynamics of the workplace based on position/privilege and identities are magnified in the virtual space. In addition, the ability to focus and participate in work activities can be more difficult due to varying circumstances. While some single parents are balancing distance learning for their young children, some of us live alone and feel isolated, others have health conditions or are supporting someone with them. The impact of living everyday as Blursday, with all aspects of our lives commingled, is differential depending on income, living situation, access to health care, and identity.
The global health crisis has only illuminated the horrific inequities we see in our workplaces, our communities and most dramatically in our healthcare systems. Those on the margins are contending with acute stressors due to the differential impact of the virus on their members, and anti-Asian backlash is an ever present threat for individuals who “look Chinese.” Although we may be weathering the same storm, the boats we ride in are significantly different.
So what’s to be done?
Like most things, it starts with you…widening your lens, opening your heart, and challenging your assumptions. If you are the team leader, what do you need to understand about your team members? How can you apply empathy to lean into their reality and co-create solutions to reduce stress, create a healthy work-from-home environment and mitigate inequities of participation? Notice who you tend to connect with most…ask yourself whose voice is not fully included.
And the most important question of all: where is your privilege creating blind spots that are harming others?
Next, acknowledge the differential impact of working from home. Situations vary from comfortable, well-equipped home offices to folks working from their bedroom floors with small children and/or other family members or roommates coming and going. Even if you can’t fully address these differences, you can acknowledge them and work with employees to encourage contribution and focus by:
- exploring individuals’ concerns/circumstances and working with them to problem-solve. This ranges from paying for a better work-from-home set up if needed (e.g. supplying a desk, ergonomic chair, upgrading WiFi, etc.) to individualizing work schedules for employees to support their work/life balance.
- holding regular individual check ins focused on connection and support vs. just tasks
- promoting and modeling self-care, making sure work demands are reasonable and allow time for stress relief
- using collaborative but asynchronous tools to allow folks to work on their own schedule (e.g. Google sheets, Slack etc)
When it comes to virtual meetings, a recent study from Stanford reveals inequities in participation and points at the need to proactively remove barriers and promote inclusion of all voices.
You can do this by:
- providing pre-work and an opportunity to prepare in advance
- co-creating and upholding norms/agreements for participation, e.g. turn-taking, listening, not interrupting, etc.
- starting with a check-in, a chance for everyone to say how they are doing professionally & personally (hot tip: model vulnerability when it’s your turn)
- pausing discussions to give individuals a chance to write or think before weighing in
- collecting written input during meetings (via Chat, etc.). Take time in the meeting to synthesize and honor all the voices
- rotating facilitation
In the end, the only way to equalize our work processes, whether in person or virtual, is to apply an equity lens, identifying the unique barriers different people are facing…and mitigating or removing them. If you’d like to go deeper, contact us for a self-assessment and debrief on how to be a more inclusive leader.
And we’d love to hear from you about your challenges, best practices, and questions. Drop us a line!