How to foster inclusion while working from home

Melonie Parker / May 2020 / Trends & Insights

An earlier version of this article appeared on the Keyword blog. Melonie Parker is Google’s chief diversity officer.

In this extraordinary time, people are searching for new ways to remain connected while being physically distant, including within the workplace. Throughout my career, I’ve always focused on building initiatives and resources for minority groups within large companies. To ensure Google is a workplace where everyone can do their best work, we've spent the last several years understanding how employees from different backgrounds experience Google and building internal programs that foster an inclusive work environment.

As we navigate the impact of COVID-19 in our own workplace, it’s vital to continue building a culture of belonging. With much of our workforce working remotely, we’re focused on helping our employees connect and finding new ways to prioritize inclusion. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned that we hope are applicable to your company, too.

Tips to building a culture of belonging remotely

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Help foster virtual connections

We know that current events are impacting employees in different ways. Some are balancing expanded childcare responsibilities, while others who live alone may be experiencing feelings of isolation. Based on early research, we see that people in underrepresented groups are likely being impacted disproportionately more. We’ve explored a variety of virtual formats for connecting people across Google. For example, the Employee Resource Groups for our Black, LatinX, and LGBTQ+ communities have hosted a number of virtual events such as fireside chats, yoga sessions, and forums on managing productivity. Our Asian Google network has aggregated resources for their community and created office hours for members to connect online.

Manage equitably

Everyone is adjusting to new responsibilities. Managers have a unique role in caring for teams to make sure their teams have everything they need to remain healthy and productive. For example, consider asking managers to work with their teams to create flexible work schedules. Having regular conversations with employees about how their attention might be divided and which projects should be prioritized is one way to see how employees are doing and help everyone remain connected.

It’s also important to find solutions that work for both employees’ roles and their needs at home. We temporarily expanded our existing Carer's Leave policy to support employees who need to take full or half days off to look after their family. Beyond formal policies, managers play a critical role in ensuring employees feel supported and included, so offering additional resources for ways to create space for their teams is helpful.

We want everyone to feel comfortable, empowered, and heard, because it makes them — and all of us — more successful.

Help people speak up

Remote meetings keep teams connected, but video conversations can make it even tougher for some participants to speak up. We want everyone to feel comfortable, empowered, and heard, because it makes them — and all of us — more successful. To ensure everyone’s voices are recognized, use multisensory cues to indicate who is speaking and who is listening. We encourage employees to avoid relying only on visual cues like hand gestures because people with visual impairments, or who are temporarily distracted, or have bad internet connection, may not be able to see them.

Also, consider appointing a moderator separate from the speaker, if possible, to help participants ask questions in real time. A moderator lessens the onus on the speaker to pay attention to participants’ body language or their unmuting, as well as on participants to figure out when they can chime in. It’s also a good idea to leave space in the meeting for those who’ve been quiet to contribute by saving time and opening up for input. But don’t feel like you have to “go around the room” — equal time doesn’t always mean equal contribution. Some people formulate and communicate questions better by writing, so consider an accessible, shared channel or document for participants to type their questions and have the speaker or a moderator go through them. Bonus: The act of writing forces people to be more succinct and clear.

Ensure meetings and presentations are accessible

Accessibility is a key component of inclusion. Real-time closed captions (CC) can help participants if they are deaf or hard-of-hearing, aren’t fluent in the language being used, or are unable to adequately use audio. Provide a phone dial-in option for those without strong internet access. Participants can also turn off their cameras to improve the connection or adjust the video quality. For presentations, using a large font size and high contrast (here’s how in Google Docs and Slides) helps people easily see images and read text. Slides are a useful tool, but not everyone may be able to see them, so we also recommend providing alternatives to purely visual information.

For example, give a verbal summary of a photo, chart, or graph. If you’re going to share your slides, documents, and other materials, remember to add alt text, or text description of the visual, to your images, graphs, and charts so people who use screen readers know what visuals are being shown.

Finally, when it comes to images, find ways to show diversity in race, skin tone, size, cultural background, name, hair type, ability, gender, age, geography, and beyond. The people you use in your images should represent diverse backgrounds to further support inclusion.

Focusing on inclusion helps build a sense of belonging. Ensuring a workplace where people of different views, backgrounds, and experiences can do their best work and show up for one another is key. These tips aren’t exhaustive by any means, but a useful start to empowering people to meaningfully join in and contribute.

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