When COVID-19 shut the world down in March 2020, a lot of companies committed to going fully remote to accommodate their employees’ desires for more flexible hours, less commute, and more time at home. Others made it clear employees should return to the office as soon as they could. And it seems others still are doing everything in between. For remote and hybrid models, it made one business issue particularly more challenging as they lost much of the benefits of in-person interaction: advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). In the wake of events such as the murder of George Floyd and a rise in attacks against Asian American communities, many companies are putting more resources into DEI to retain talent, leaving an open question: how do you virtually celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion in a remote world?
Why are Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) important for Corporate Teams?
Let’s start with the basics.
- Diversity is the concept that we are not individually diverse, but that teams are inherently diverse. There can be diversity in thought, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, abilities, backgrounds, age, marital status, sexual orientation, etc. Defining diversity means going beyond simple demographics and embracing all the things that make us, as individuals, unique. It can help us expand our understanding of others and remove personal biases
- Equity means providing resources for everyone to succeed. Treating everyone equally inherently supports inequity because we live in an unequal society. Giving everyone what they individually need to be successful supports equity. It is making sure internal bias does not affect the standings of different identities within the workplace
- Inclusion is about respecting, celebrating, and valuing these individuals in a way that they feel valued and belong. It’s actively working to make sure the diverse population feels welcome and celebrated, not just tolerated. It’s what retains a diverse talent workforce.
Companies often only focus on diversity, which puts pressure on the recruiting team to find diverse talent. But what happens when they get there? Many companies struggle to hold onto their diverse coworkers because they do not invest a commensurate amount in inclusion and equity. Without all three sides of the triangle, you will not succeed.
Taking this thought from the company level to the team level, we see the same issues arise in a diverse workforce that has not invested in equity & inclusion. Team members may hold internal biases that impact the way they interact with their coworkers and negatively impact the work environment. We've all seen the cringe-worthy training videos on how to spot overt offenses in the workplace, but more often than any egregious incident, a lack of equity and inclusion pops up in subtle remarks on appearances, promoting the ideas of one colleague over another, or insensitivity around different cultural touchpoints such as religion.
How do you Strive for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in a Virtual Environment?
It's important to note that DEI is an ongoing process that needs to be invested in throughout the lifecycle of a company, not a goal that one team or another can "achieve." As we all come with different prejudices and experiences, it's important to honor the changing landscape of a team and continuously invest in understanding new employees' perspectives.
This can be particularly challenging in a remote environment for several reasons. As remote work blurs the lines between work and home life, employees are increasingly bringing their whole selves to work and engaging in personal conversations about identity. It is becoming increasingly impossible, and inadvisable, to avoid these conversations. And yet, as we have these conversations we are doing them through video conference, inherently losing a critical aspect of human engagement while attempting to tackle loaded topics. Therefore, it's important to take a couple of baseline steps to start working towards a more inclusive environment:
- Use Gender-Inclusive Language. Avoiding phrases like "you guys" and adding your pronouns in your Zoom name are just two ways to shift your daily language into one that is more inclusive for every team member.
- Avoid and Call Out Problematic Language. Problematic language can arise in many forms. As an example, a comment on a coworker's hairstyle or clothing may seem innocuous but is often loaded with cultural implications that could make that person uncomfortable. It's important to call this language out and start a dialogue to address why that language is problematic.
- Honor Diversity in Your Photography, Quotes, and Other Materials. Present yourself as an inclusive workforce by making sure the representation of your company reflects your teams. Using different people in your materials and representing different backgrounds is a subtle yet important way to communicate to your team that they are welcome here.
Prep Work: Host Regular Virtual Team-Building Events Focused on Inclusivity & Learning
If this is your first foray into investing in DEI, it's important to communicate to your team or company that this is a priority and should be taken seriously. Set a virtual meeting to discuss the initiative and then invest in regular diversity trainings so employees can begin to learn how to take personal steps to further DEI. Companies often lean on the minorities in their organization to represent their culture or speak for all minorities. This can have a disastrous effect as it singles them out and puts an undue burden on them to speak for others. Instead, bring in outside resources to train colleagues on DEI and establish a safe space. By setting the tone that your company cares about DEI, all future events will have a baseline understanding that it is to be respected and acknowledged in the workplace.
5 Ideas to Improve DEI in a Virtual Environment
Now that we've established the need for DEI and initiatives in a remote workforce, there are a couple of ways to promote your work despite not having in-person engagement. At a high level, these include team-building activities, resources for different initiatives, programs that support a diverse workforce, and collecting feedback to make sure the efforts you're undertaking are in fact supporting workplace inclusion. Here are five of our top ideas to improve DEI in a virtual environment:
1. Celebrate Pride Month & Other Holidays in a Meaningful Way
Celebrating different identities is a great way to show everyone that they are valued. June is Pride Month, and a great time to show the LGBTQ+ employees that they are valued and celebrated. A special happy hour, team-building activity, or note from a leader can go a long way in accomplishing this internally. Participating in a Pride parade, changing your logo to reflect the current Pride flag, and setting up fundraising efforts to support LGBTQ+ organizations are a great way to externally demonstrate that your company supports its LGBTQ+ workers. Some other ways to celebrate workplace diversity include supporting BIPOC-owned local businesses; setting up female-led panels to discuss gender in the workplace; and throwing an event for employees to bring their families.
2. Create Slack Channels for Affinity Groups in Remote Teams
Sharing personal stories and news articles can be a great way for employees to connect, though not every article will necessarily be appropriate for the company-wide slack group. Creating individual slack channels for affinity groups allows employees to subscribe to the channels that they deem relevant, whether or not they identify with that affinity, and can increase employee engagement.
3. Leverage & Promote Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)
While affinity-based slack channels are open to everyone, ERG's are typically, though not always, exclusive for the folks who fall under the umbrella of that identity. These could include groups based on:
- Sexual orientation
- Social or economic causes
- Shared interests
ERGs are a great way to directly invest in that cohort by providing funds for trainings and events. Leveraging ERGs to support different initiatives is an important way to make sure they feel involved in the process. Keep in mind, however, that leaning too heavily on them can add more work to their plate and should be mutually agreed upon. Some companies have started to pay the leaders of their ERGs to reflect the additional work they are doing.
4. Offer Flexible Holiday Leave for Different Religious Observances
For many non-christian religious employees, holidays are a difficult time to continue working. Whether they are fasting, observing certain rituals, or need to attend services, offering flexible leave for employees who need honors each employee's desire to observe their individual religious commitments.
5. Conduct a Survey to Ask Employees What They Want For Diversity Events For Remote Teams
Soliciting feedback from your employees is critical in making sure the inclusion activities you're offering are truly supporting them in the workplace. Building an office of mutual collaboration will support your ongoing efforts to improve DEI and set you up for success in the future.
How Much Do Virtual DEI Initiatives Cost?
While ideally, you can invest in DEI within your organization, as you can see there are many ways to support DEI that do not require a financial investment. Starting with the foundation and researching how to effectively communicate to your organization is a free way to start investing in the long-term success of your DEI initiatives, and in turn, your company. When considering the investment, it is prudent to look critically at your attrition and ask yourself if a lack of DEI is playing a factor. From there, consider the justification of spend as a worthwhile means to retain top talent. On top of that, companies that invest in DEI have seen an increase in employee happiness and psychological safety. Combined with higher morale, you may even see an increase in productivity, further improving your bottom line. However, that's the capitalist in us talking. You can also just do it because it's the right thing to do!
Whether you're starting small or going big, investing in DEI is a must for companies who want to attract and retain top talent. In a remote world, this becomes even more important as employees bring more of themselves to work and are looking for companies that honor different perspectives. It's important to remember that this is a process and everyone has to start somewhere. By starting today, no matter how small a step, you're ensuring that you're putting your organization on the path to be a place people will want to work for years to come.