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How to foster inclusivity in a remote environment

As Human Made COO and author of ‘A Life Lived Remotely‘, Siobhan McKeown knows more than most about the challenges, opportunities and strategies of how to get the most out of a remote working environment, including what it takes to foster inclusivity and ensure every team member feels equally valued. Here she shares her strategies for building an inclusive remote environment everyone can be proud to be part of.

One of the joys of working at a remote company is that you get to meet and work with people from all over the world. This creates a vibrance and diversity that is hard to replicate in a co-located company. It also comes with its challenges, particularly around communication and miscommunication, and so if you want to create inclusivity in a remote company which is welcoming to every member of staff, you need to put thought into making sure you create a culture where everyone feels included.

This is something that I think about a lot at Human Made, especially as I consider how to embed processes and create policies that are inclusive to everyone who passes through our virtual doors.

Let’s take a look at some of the things that I think about when building an inclusive culture.

Build diversity and inclusivity into your values

Values should never just be well-constructed words on your corporate website. Values act as a guide for how your employees behave and what your company aspires to be. At their best they are a tool for making decisions and for guiding behaviour.

By building inclusivity into your core values you tell the company that inclusivity is something to be factored into decision-making and that the company expects that everyone behaves in an inclusive manner. By not featuring inclusivity in your values you risk it becoming an afterthought or not being considered at all. 

Find out more about values-based inclusivity in one of my previous posts here.

Language matters

Remote companies often have a core language through which the business operates. At Human Made, like many western tech companies, it’s English.

While most staff members at Human Made are fluent in English, there are many idioms, turns-of-phrase, or ways of speaking that are difficult for non-English natives to parse. This is also the case across different English-speaking countries where particular colloquialisms don’t translate. 

When you are communicating, you need to make sure that you are understood. When people don’t understand what you are saying or misunderstand they are excluded. Not only that, it’s important that you don’t use language or words that are othering or make people feel that they are somehow separate from the majority in the company. 

Here are some tips to make your language more inclusive:

  • Avoid jargon and idioms, especially in important communications. 
  • Keep your language clear to make sure that everyone can understand it.
  • Be aware of terms related to race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, medical conditions and abilities. 
  • Be open to feedback on your use of language and specific terms. A word or phrase that appears fine in some cultures could be offensive in others. 
  • Use gender-neutral labels for family members.
  • Learn how to pronounce names that are difficult or you are unfamiliar with.

Don’t make assumptions

We all come preloaded with biases that are a result of our upbringing and our culture. Even if we try hard it can be challenging to be aware of all of them. These biases can slip into our day to day interactions as assumptions that we make about people based on what we take to be the norm.

When you make assumptions about people that are incorrect you’re effectively telling them that they deviate from what you take to be normal behaviour. This works against creating an inclusive culture. 

Common examples of assumptions that I see in and outside the workplace are: assuming that a person is married to someone of the same gender, assuming that a woman wants children, assuming that a woman is the main caregiver of her children, assuming that people are neurotypical, assuming that everyone celebrates Christmas, and assuming that everyone thinks like you. 

If you do make an incorrect assumption about another person just own it, apologise, and move on. 

Create policies that embed inclusivity

Your company’s workplace policies set the parameters for what people can expect from you as their employer. These policies need to support the diversity of your workforce, which means that boilerplate policies are unlikely to suffice.

You need to think beyond standard maternity, sick, and holiday leave and make sure that your policies encompass the diversity of your workforce. Some things to consider:

  • Shift from maternity and paternity leave to parental leave and make sure that it is open to parents who adopt
  • Allow time off for fertility treatment and adoption appointments
  • Don’t mandate public holidays to be taken based on your primary country of operation, and never enforce that the whole company take Christmas or another religious holiday
  • Make sure that all of your staff are able to expense what they need to work, for example accessibility software or ergonomic equipment
  • Have adequate compassionate and sick leave to enable people to take time off to care for others or themselves
  • Have robust mental health policies and support
  • Make sure that your staff can properly make use of flexible work

When you are creating new policies it is helpful to gather feedback from diverse groups of people so you can understand the impact they will have in different scenarios.

Factor timezones into planning

Time zones are one of the practical factors that can prevent individuals from feeling included as part of your company. When you have team members scattered around the world it can make scheduling very difficult and can lead to excluding some members of staff from core activities in the company. This can lead to a sense of isolation and detachment. 

To be completely honest, when you have one or two people at a very different timezone from the rest of the company it is a big challenge to overcome. People naturally chat synchronously throughout the day and jump on calls to solve problems. However, there are ways to build processes that address the timezone challenge, for example:

  • Leaning into asynchronous communication so that everyone has an opportunity to participate
  • Rotating meeting times so that the burden of attending calls outside normal working hours is shared
  • Ensuring leaders make themselves available some of the time to meet with employees who are not in their own region
  • Ensuring good handover practises and documentation so that no one is blocked in their work

Inclusivity means being open to other people’s working patterns

While the nine-to-five has been an expectation of traditional office culture, remote work allows for a more flexible approach. In an effective remote environment, employees should be able to tailor their working hours to meet the expectations of the company while also balancing work with the rest of their life.

There is an important inclusivity aspect here: people with caring responsibilities may need to work around school collections or hospital appointments or people who are neurodiverse may require a particular work schedule that suits their needs, for example. And of course there are people who work better in the morning and those who work better in the evening.

One of the beautiful things about asynchronous communication is that it enables people to communicate and deliver on expectations, regardless of their working patterns and preferences. 

Be aware of the bias in your company’s centre of gravity

Every remote company has its headquarters or origins somewhere in the world. Many remote tech companies are US-based, for Human Made it’s the UK. We all come with our own cultural baggage, our tendency to see the world in a particular way, our own brands of humour, and business cultures.

There is a danger that we can enforce that as the base culture for our companies and expect everyone to conform to that particular culture. For a remote culture to be inclusive it’s important that leaders in particular are aware of this bias. This doesn’t mean that all cultural differences should be flattened out to something homogenous, but that we should embrace the expanse of cultures within our companies.

Something that feels counter-intuitive to a British person could feel very natural to someone in India, just as something that feels natural to someone in the United States could feel weird to someone from the Netherlands. Rather than pretending that these things don’t happen it’s better to accept them, talk about them, and embrace them to create your company’s unique culture – that’s true inclusivity.

Implement a code of conduct

A code of conduct sets the expectations for behaviour for everyone in the company. You can read the Human Made code of conduct here.

One of the guiding principles that I had when writing Human Made’s code of conduct was to ensure that everyone felt included and respected in a safe working environment. Therefore it takes into account the actions that you need to take and how you ought to behave in a global company. Whatever you decide to put in your code of conduct it should reflect your values and create an inclusive space for everyone who works for you. 

There is no one way to create a culture of inclusivity, and it’s also not just something you can set and forget. For your culture to be truly inclusive it has to evolve as new people join the company, as you grow and adapt to new challenges, and as the global landscape that we are all part of shifts and changes.

Things will happen in society or in the media which can make certain groups feel excluded or ostracised at particular times: your inclusive culture should adapt and be responsive to changes inside and outside your company to make sure that it is always a safe and welcoming place for everyone.