Make All Employees Feel Included in the Organization

Posts about working from home have been all over my LinkedIn newsfeed for the last couple of weeks. First from people who work from home routinely, offering their advice and reassurances: “you’ll get used to it soon!” Then came the posts from those still adjusting (because their job function requires them to work onsite, or there’s a ‘you-could-work-from-home-but-you-really-need-to-be-in-the-office-for-face-time’ culture) and their challenges of finding a clear and quiet space to work and managing distractions. And now there are the funny posts about kids, pets and the occasional deer photobombing our video calls or makeshift desks. Organizations across the globe are trying to adjust to the new norm of remote work as quickly and effortlessly as we can. 

Many leaders are finding that working remotely can be challenging. It takes more effort to communicate instructions and priorities, and it’s harder to stay attuned to people’s moods and mental roadblocks. It’s hard to be heard on Zoom calls with 25+ people or to find time to catch people in between all those meetings to have the quick one-off conversations that drive the business forward.

Working remote: #newnormal or #oldnormal?

Welcome to the everyday frustrations of your remote sales team and anyone else who doesn’t work at a major office hub or headquarters. For many, working remote is the #oldnormal, and they’ve felt like part of the out-group as the business interacts and moves forward as if they’re not in the room…because they’re not. 

Now that everyone is working remotely, it’s a good time to build the habits that make everyone feel like equal team members, regardless of where you work.

  • Make sure everyone knows each other.

    This seems SO obvious, and probably unnecessary. Of course, everyone knows each other, you all work together…  But for anyone new to the organization and hasn’t caught all the names and faces, and for anyone who has been working remotely and has to put names to faces (and voices) from a group video feed, refreshing relationships can be important. Find fun ways to do it:

    • Maybe at the start of a group meeting, everyone shares their name and a favorite hobby, or where they grew up. 
    • Or have pairs of people do 15 minute 1:1 meetings where they share their prior jobs and what they learned from them. 

You might be surprised by the new connections and respect that comes from reintroducing your team to each other.

  • Go around the room.

    Meetings are often attended by many and dominated by a few. When you don’t hear from others, you’re missing out on ideas and different perspectives. Find ways to solicit input from everyone.

    • More people will have the opportunity to contribute when you provide an agenda in advance because they’ll know how to prepare and they’ll have some time to think about what they might share. 
    • Whenever feasible, do a round-robin, pausing to solicit feedback or ideas from each person in the room. 
    • If you’re meeting on Webex or Zoom, let people know ahead of time what you’re planning, and provide a list of names in the order you’ll call on them so people can be ready to come off of mute. You can go alphabetically by first or last name, or stack the list so those who are most comfortable speaking go first.
    • If you have colleagues who go on and on (and on…) put a timeframe around the contributions. Set your timer for 30 seconds or 2 minutes, and have a jaunty tune play when time is up (I play ‘By the Seaside’ on my iPhone).
    • Encourage people to put additional thoughts in the chat feature of your video call, or create a Slack channel to capture the ideas. Especially on video calls, it’s hard to break in when you think of something else to share. You can monitor the chat to see if you should circle back to a person or an idea.
    • If you think anyone might not be comfortable contributing, like in a brainstorming where people hold back their wackier ideas, use an anonymous audience app like Slido to collect the ideas alongside your call.

How can organizations know if they feel included?

Inclusion is a human need, one that makes us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves, and an ideal state for an organization trying to encourage collaboration and innovation. Your employees come to your organization with a range of perspectives on what it means to feel included. This may be shaped by their prior experiences (good or bad) at other companies, their impressions of what your company culture is like—and sot of all, what they think YOU are like. 

Leaders have many opportunities to make small tweaks to be more inclusive and bring people of your organization into the fold.

Too busy? Try Office Hours

Many leaders are in meetings all day and block time on their calendar to get their real work done. While this makes sense for your needs, it’s sending a message to others: I’m fully booked, you can’t have any of my time. It has worked for you so far because people who know you and already feel comfortable asking for your time will get it. But people who are intimidated by you, or for whom this is the first outreach, likely won’t ask. Consider creating regular office hours—a couple of times a week when people can reach out to you for a quick conversation. You can let people know about it in team meetings, or update your status on Slack. This becomes even more important when working remotely because people can’t just hope to catch you in the hall. Making yourself available to a wide range of colleagues is a key aspect of modern leadership: you’ll get more insights from more people with differing perspectives, allowing you to compile a clear view of what’s happening at work (on a project, on a team). Then you can shape the outcomes to drive success.

Know your people of the organization

It’s easy to tell managers ‘take the time to get to know your people” but human nature causes us to get to know those ‘like us’ better than ‘them.’ When everyone is working remotely, you’ll naturally gravitate to keep in closer contact with your key colleagues rather than the broader team. Create a quick 4 box table for each person on your team and each important tangential person important to your work world. Consider categories like motivators, aspirations, drags, delegation.  

    • Motivators: what motivates this person? Is it recognition, money, the satisfaction of a job well done?
    • Aspirations: what’s a great stretch assignment, what’s next on the career path?
    • Drags: what situations does this person really dislike, what drags down their energy level?
    • Delegation: what activities does this person do that is not the best use of their time?

Instead of filling the chart in with what you already ‘know’ (a speedway for unconscious bias,) find ways to ask the team members themselves over the normal course of business. “I’m guessing you’ve totally mastered this task, let’s think about who else can take it on. What else do you think you could delegate to someone else? As we free up that time, what stretch assignment would you like to try next?” Times of change, like now, as the business needs or services evolve during the coronavirus, is a great time to put this extra effort into your people. You’ll come across as thoughtful and aligned with what’s important to them, but also as a senior leader who can adapt, who is in control of a wide range of opportunities and who is good at growing your talent pool. Bringing everyone up the growth curve along with you is a way of being inclusive that pays exponential dividends. 

Be careful of your assumptions

An external partner sent me a note the other day asking why I hadn’t responded to her email. Because I have two kids and we’d just transitioned to at-home learning, she assumed I was busy with family stuff. Fortunately for me, my kids are early teens, digitally savvy, and already on Google Classroom and Zoom—their transition was a breeze. I had instead been heads down in Emtrain’s massive dataset on workplace culture (now at 7+ million data points – see our Culture Report for more). 

But that’s not why I hadn’t responded to her email: I hadn’t received it. Because of the transition to work from home from her organization, and the subsequent huge increase in email traffic, her email to me was in an outbound queue and hadn’t yet been sent. We had a great chuckle over all of this when we finally spoke by phone. Our good relationship allowed us to let this pass by without a second thought. But it was a good reminder that we’re pretty quick to make assumptions, and often those assumptions aren’t accurate. Even worse, they can make people feel absent from the community or intentionally excluded. 

Glancing over at someone across the floor, or having an informal conversation in the hall, can provide a good check and balance to these assumptions, but when those don’t happen because people aren’t present in the organization, you’ll need to make more effort to reach out and check-in.


covid-19empathyemployee communication
Laraine McKinnon
Talent and Culture Strategist Women's Advocate Former Managing Director at BlackRock
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