Inclusion is the secret of the most successful remote teams.
McKinsey found that 39 percent of survey respondents have turned down or decided not to pursue a job because of a lack of inclusion in an organization.
The data doesn’t lie: More inclusion and diverse teams make better decisions, strengthen customer relationships, and lead to better business outcomes.
Every positive team culture starts with a sense of belonging. Research shows that when employees feel included at work, they tend to perform better, take fewer sick days, and are less likely to look for a new job.
But what exactly does it mean to feel a sense of belonging in the workplace?
We all want to feel a sense of purpose and belonging at work, and to be treated like we’re more than just a number on a payroll. Having a sense of belonging means feeling like your organization values your true, authentic self.
Why is a sense of belonging so important?
Without a sense of belonging, employees can feel stifled or ignored – leading to an unhappy, disengaged workforce.
Disengagement is costly. According to Gallup, disengaged employees are responsible for an estimated $450 to $550 billion annually nationwide.
Right now, fostering a culture of belonging is more important than ever. Almost a year into the COVID-19 crisis, diverse groups are struggling. In fact, only one in six diverse employees feel supported by their organizations right now.
In order to help their remote teams feel supported, leaders need to prioritize inclusion and belonging. Here are four practices to drive a sense of belonging on a remote team.
1. Encourage employee recognition
Appreciation is a critical part of an employee’s sense of belonging. In a LinkedIn survey of global professionals, 59% of respondents said that being recognized for accomplishments at work was the largest single contributor to an overall sense of belonging. When employees feel like their efforts are noticed and appreciated, they experience a stronger sense of belonging on their teams.
Unfortunately, many people feel invisible at work — especially women and people of color. According to a 2020 report from The Lean In Foundation, for every 100 men promoted to manager in America, only 58 Black women are promoted. Not only are Black women underrepresented in leadership roles, they’re also less likely to be recognized for their accomplishments.
From honoring work anniversaries, onboarding new employees, or celebrating daily wins, there are many ways to recognize your diverse team’s accomplishments. An easy way to start is by encouraging leaders to say “thank you” to a different team member every week. To make this recognition more impactful, managers should focus on specific accomplishments rather than general statements (“I appreciate the dedication and thoroughness you demonstrated on this project” is more impactful than “Good job.”) You can find helpful templates for employee recognition here.
By regularly celebrating the strengths, skills, and experiences of your diverse employees, you’ll create a stronger, more united team.
To create a culture of appreciation, recognition needs to be a team-wide effort. By using a recognition tool that empowers every employee to recognize one another — whether it’s for core values, offering a helping hand, or sharing knowledge — you’ll boost team inclusion and instill a sense of belonging in your team.
2. Change up your team-building activities
Team-building activities aren’t one-size-fits-all. While some employees might enjoy virtual happy hours, that doesn't mean that they're for everyone. Some employees might have different schedules that limit them from attending. Others might choose to abstain from alcohol, or simply dislike video calls.
That’s why it’s important to add some variety to your virtual events. Attendance should be optional, and there should be a mix of synchronous and asynchronous options for a wide variety of interests and schedules.
To help build a sense of community in your virtual workplace, leaders should embrace virtual events that give employees a chance to get to know each other and share more about themselves. Recipe sharing, virtual book/podcast clubs, and company trivia challenges are all great ways to spark conversation and help remote employees get to know one another.
The best way to get ideas for new team-building activities? Send out an informal poll or challenge on a monthly basis. You might be surprised at the ideas that your team members come up with.
Virtual team-building activities can also be a way to raise awareness about diverse causes and issues. Encourage employees to read or watch diverse books and movies and then start a discussion. Or, have a fundraiser and collect donations to a social justice organization.
While it can take a bit of planning to pull off a successful virtual event, it’s well worth the effort. A 2009 study found that virtual teams had the potential to surpass in-person teams if they receive enough support, communication, and online team-building.
3. Tap into your ERGs
One of the most effective ways to boost employee engagement and inclusion is through employee resource groups, or ERGs (also known as affinity groups).
An ERG is an employee-led group where employees who share a common identity can connect and collaborate. Today, 90% of Fortune 500 companies have ERGs, providing many HR leaders with an invaluable resource to better support their diverse employees.
In addition to spreading awareness throughout your organization, ERGs provide a safe space for employees to connect with like-minded colleagues. In a remote work environment, ERGs can provide connection and support for employees who might be at risk of isolation and burnout.
ERGs are also an opportunity to build a community among employees facing unique challenges related to remote work, such as working parents. Be sure to encourage team members to leverage ERGs and promote them to new hires.
Today’s abrupt shift to remote work may impact different groups within your organization in different ways. By partnering with ERGs, organization leaders can gain a greater understanding of these issues and gather new ideas to address them.
4. Use active listening to create inclusive workspaces
Perhaps the most powerful way to foster a sense of belonging is by simply listening to your employees. Employees who feel like their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to do their best work.
The first step is giving employees at every level of the organization the opportunity to share their thoughts and feedback. From employee surveys to one-on-one check-ins, regular and structured listening is essential to helping employees feel heard.
In addition, organizations need to create an organized follow-up plan for feedback, with clear communication and transparency into next steps. A clear action plan will help employees feel more comfortable speaking up in the future and build a greater sense of trust between leaders and team members.
Finally, active listening needs to be an ongoing process within your organization. Rather than focus on meeting a one-time goal for inclusion, a consistent approach to active listening will ensure that your team feels heard and understood, even as your remote culture continues to change and adapt.
5. Prioritize communication
Leadership plays an important role in setting the example of communicating and listening with empathy.
The effects of communicating as a “flat organization” can be positive. By eliminating the notion of “levels” or “tiers” that stand between leadership and employees, you make communication easier.
There’s plenty you can do to facilitate communication amongst teams. To ensure you’re prioritizing communication:
- Keep a remote “open door” policy for any employee that wants to connect
- Document the feedback process and speak openly about areas of excellence as well as areas of improvement
- Schedule recurring all-hands meetings and leverage repetition to increase engagement
- Take advantage of virtual collaboration software for real-time productivity
6. Create a flexible work environment
Consider that 43 percent of employees are less likely to experience burnout when they’re allowed to choose which tasks to work on. Burnout leads to disengagement in the workplace. For that and many other reasons, creating a remote work environment that’s inclusive takes flexibility.
Being flexible can start with being empathetic to personal work styles, which takes listening. For example, some employees may prefer an asynchronous approach to project management, while others work better in face-to-face Zoom meetings. Being flexible with either approach and establishing a happy medium is key.
However, flexibility goes beyond being considerate of personal work styles. Empowering employees to freely share ideas and take on a “leadership” role within their team is yet another healthy approach to flexibility.
Provide employees with opportunities to engage in anything from creating tutorials or hosting mini-training sessions. Rather than maintaining a top-down approach, encouraging a collaborative work experience can help employees feel a greater sense of belonging.
7. Provide learning and development opportunities
A staggering 94 percent of employees claim they would stay longer at a company if offered opportunities for growth and learning. Interestingly, learning and development are quickly becoming their own entity within organizations, which comes with many implications in terms of an employee’s career growth.
Smart companies are investing more time into aligning employee goals with those of the organization. Identifying skill gaps and investing time in training employees in those areas can pay off in terms of retention, inclusion, and company culture.
However, remote learning shouldn’t be confused with learning in isolation, especially for remote teams. As the Global Head of Enablement at Shopify, Daniella Bellaire explains, “Remote learning does not mean independent learning. If you are someone who learns by talking through problems and ideas, then pairing up with peers is a great way to learn together and challenge each other. This also helps with engagement and relationship building as a bonus.”
8. Be generous with public recognition
Expressing appreciation through public recognition is a key part of establishing a sense of belonging for remote teams. Currently, only about one in three workers feel like they receive ongoing recognition for their work.
Moreover, the two that don’t feel appreciated have a higher likelihood of expressing a desire to quit within a year. From ensuring you recognize important employee milestones to shouting out results that exceeded expectations, leadership can and should acknowledge employee efforts.
9. Maintain engagement
The shift to a remote work environment catalyzed by the onset of a worldwide pandemic only emphasized the need for better people management. And better people management takes maintaining an engaged remote workforce.
Beyond the need to establish an organization-wide commitment to engagement and inclusivity, there are a few additional things leaders can do to carry on the engagement they’ve built.
Consider initiatives like:
Celebrating differences amongst teams. Emphasize the strengths that come with differences instead of ignoring them. While some employees might be great at collaborating with team members, others might be better at planning and jumpstarting projects.
Training leadership in EQ. A 2019 survey uncovered that 78 percent of employees would consider working longer hours for an employer with more empathy. What’s more, 82 percent of employees would consider changing jobs if it meant working under more empathetic leadership.
Offering mentorship or one-on-ones. About nine out of 10 workers who have a career mentor express being happy with their jobs. Mentorship can have a huge effect on creating a sense of inclusion and belonging.
10. Create spaces that simulate in-office interactions
Just because remote teams aren’t in the office doesn’t mean they can’t still engage in everyday banter as if they were. Creating spaces like designated Slack channels or optional monthly meetings where team members can chat and share personal anecdotes can help to increase that shared sense of connection and importance and improve the overall remote work culture.
As Daphne Valentino, Marketing Ops and Sales Enablement Manager at INFUSEmedia, said, “We have taken a unique approach to drive engagement and support our remote workers by holding competitions for both individuals and teams. Zoom meetings have also provided an amazing way for us to still have our coffees and lunches together while chatting and in meetings.”
As you think about activities you might have already established—like virtual team-building meetings—think about other low-pressure ways you can encourage employees to engage with leadership as well as with one another.
A sense of belonging is a crucial ingredient in employee engagement.
Research shows that employees feel more productive when they’re given the option to work remotely. For this reason, organizations need to harness inclusion strategies that maintain engagement, attract and retain top talent, and make for a more productive remote culture.
Inclusion initiatives lead to better outcomes and are an essential part of supporting an organization’s revenue goals. But they can only be made possible through empathetic leadership that approaches the creation of an inclusive remote work environment.
Building a culture of belonging within a remote work environment may take some creative thinking – but it’s well worth the effort. Organizations that prioritize inclusion and belonging will reap the benefits of a more engaged, productive team.
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