Reinventing inclusivity in isolation

When the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of employees into remote working, the first thought on most employers’ minds was doing so securely and efficiently. But as the dust has settled, the issue of ensuring inclusivity has risen to the fore.

For some companies, this has been a priority from the start. “We have always embraced a flexible approach to working and so prior to the lockdown we had a number of tools we used to encourage inclusion on a global scale to support the real mix of employment contracts we had in place,” says Philippa Williams, head of talent at global talent acquisition and management firm Alexander Mann Solutions.

“Yammer, for example, has previously been used by the team to connect remote and home workers with the office as well as keep our colleagues worldwide in touch.”

However, Williams adds: “In light of the global shift to greater remote working, and our entire global team now working from home, we quickly implemented a number of changes that have been incredibly valuable in bringing everyone together.

“For example, as we prepared to move the teams out of the offices, we developed guidance documents to ensure staff and team leaders were as equipped as possible for the changes, both in terms of tools available and how to keep engagement up. We also ensured that staff were completely aware of where they can turn to for support if they are struggling with absolutely anything.”

How to keep neurodiverse employees engaged remotely

Producing guidance for leaders on how to keep neurodiverse individuals engaged was at the top of the company agenda. “For some in this group, the now-popular video calls are uncomfortable, so there are instances where videos should in fact be avoided,” says Williams.

To this end, Auticon, a consultancy which exclusively employs autistic adults, advised that some of the guidance documents were potentially too “bright and busy” for some neurodiverse audiences and wouldn’t be helpful. “As a result,” says Williams, “we adapted the documents for our neurodiverse employees.”

It’s times like these that really prove to employees how much a company genuinely cares

While video calls are being widely embraced, there are some who find face-to-face communication uncomfortable in normal conditions, so to then have ten faces staring at you from your computer is certainly going to be an issue. “In some instances, phone calls are the best approach and we’ve ensured everyone was not only aware of this, but also comfortable with making a request to not join video conversations,” she adds.

The company also uses video software, which enables people to post questions or comments anonymously during online webinars, and to increase engagement.

Encouraging input from all levels of business

Others have moved fast to introduce initiatives to promote better inclusivity. Brighton-based tech company Cloud9 Insight has implemented new systems for onboarding recruits remotely and created a “fun and good news” group on Microsoft Teams exclusively to run messages and exciting announcements, promoting and prioritising family. One staff member was even able to share his toddler’s first steps while on a Zoom meeting.

Since lockdown, the company has launched a strategy and innovation competition. “Staff were divided into randomised groups of three. They were encouraged to set aside time, perhaps with a glass of wine, to chat online and come up with ideas for how they would invest in the company to grow the business in revenue and profit, in line with the future of work after COVID-19,” says chief executive Carlene Jackson.

Feeling included and connected

“The market is changing and I feel that our business strategy should have input from all levels of the business, inclusive of all ages, with younger people and newer recruits contributing equally to those in leadership positions.

“I found that team members have been really excited to be working with people they wouldn’t usually work alongside. It’s encouraging brand new connections which wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for this crisis.”

Regular, transparent communication is key

Other companies are realising that little touches go a long way. Digital agency Engage has implemented a range of things to keep its employees connected and engaged, including “Make me smile”, a £15 budget to send a colleague a surprise gift, with pairing done through a random generator, a 21-day challenge, with everyone choosing something they wanted to do for 21 days to build a new habit during lockdown, raising money for charity and earning a £20 Just Eat voucher on completion.

“In times like this, you can’t over-communicate as we aren’t going to see everyone engaging with every initiative. By having regular, transparent communication and organising a range of events to suit different tastes we can increase the chance of everyone enjoying something, just having drinks on Friday over a video call isn’t enough,” says Alex Willcocks, Engage co-founder.

“Maintaining good company culture means people feel like they work at a business which really values them and their mental health and wellbeing. It’s times like these that really prove to employees how much a company genuinely cares and is interested in investing in them.”

Michelle Dyer, vice president, risk and compliance, at American Express Global Business Travel (GBT), which operates across 140 countries with 18,000 employees, says: “Many people already worked remotely, so maintaining service continuity while some office-based staff moved to a work-from-home environment wasn’t the biggest challenge.

“But when everyone is changing working modes, while faced with personal and professional uncertainty at the same time, communication is vital.”

Keeping furloughed colleagues in the community

To build a sense of community and a channel for information and resources, the company is using an optional interactive mobile app for furloughed employees. “The uptake has been fantastic,” says Dyer. “Thousands of people are sharing personal stories about their recent experiences. They have access to wellbeing resources, including options for counselling services for themselves and their families.

“We’re also including lists of volunteering opportunities and ways for people to learn new skills online, such as software development, photography and blues guitar.”

In a group conference call or video meeting, it’s easy to lose people in the crowd. Some voices can be marginalised, even inadvertently. GBT staff are being encouraged to be aware of this risk and try to facilitate the voices of all attendees by introducing everyone on the call, welcoming people by name as they arrive and giving everyone an opportunity to contribute. “Simple changes go a long way to making people feel they’re involved,” says Dyer.

Some inclusivity benefits have developed organically from the pandemic. “Our staff have felt empowered to show their true selves at work. Those with prior experience of working from home now embrace the interruptions from their kids, rather than hiding in the cupboard for a conference call,” says Williams at Alexander Mann Solutions.

“And we’re seeing more variety of networks develop. Employees are taking over Yammer to build their own communities that would never have been connected had we not been in lockdown. For example, one of our team members is working from home, completely alone and isolated from her family. She set up a group on Yammer with others in the same position so they can all offer each other support, something that certainly wouldn’t have happened in the world of work prior to COVID-19.”