An increasing trend is the rise of the virtual business. Such companies don’t have a physical office – instead, they conduct all or most of their business via the Internet.
Now, the shift towards virtual business is accelerating, thanks to COVID-19. The enforced lockdown in many jurisdictions has created a laboratory for remote working, affecting millions of employees. In addition, the restrictions on travel mean that virtual meetings will be the norm for some time to come.
Another trend underpinning the modern workplace is diversity and inclusion. For years now, research and practice suggest that workforce diversity and inclusion often leads to organisational benefits. Having employees with varied characteristics and backgrounds can bring a range of perspectives, skills and experiences with which to inform planning and business strategy.
With more and more businesses moving to a virtual environment, what will this mean for employees – especially for globally distributed teams? What will this mean for increased diversity and inclusion?
Plan for Diversity
As many workplaces transition to virtual operations, employers are forced to re-assess the functionality of their workplace practices and employment relations.
Professor Jane Parker, Professor of Employment Relations and HRM at Massey University argues that remote working actually increases access for certain members of society. “Remote working has meant that people with disabilities, mobility issues or care responsibilities now operate on a more equal level playing field in terms of work ‘access’ and flexibility,” explains Prof. Parker.
Nevertheless, the danger for burnout exists. Online working fosters greater productivity and flexibility on the one hand but the potential for work intensification and burnout, on the other, particularly when work/non-work time boundaries are weak and many remote workers do not plan for time off.
Hence, Prof. Parker advises the companies should encourage diversity and inclusion with ‘intentional’ policy and practice:
- Diversity and inclusion needs to be central to and fostered by corporate and people management strategy, with leaders reinforcing inclusion through their words and deeds.
- An actionable, measurable plan to fulfil diversity aims is also required.
- Operationally, work processes may need to change, with companies moving away from virtual meeting formats that contribute to exclusionary practices.
- Mindfulness of whether all workers feel comfortable with online meetings that require their face (and home environment) to be visible is also needed (e.g. introverted employees may prefer to use chat and email messaging rather than to speak in online meetings).
- A growth mindset is needed (e.g. by reducing daily meetings to allow room for employees to self-evaluate, recognise their strengths and areas for development, and do their work).
- Related to this, digital upskilling may help all workers to effectively contribute though upskilling programmes in the region are at an early stage or only focus on urban populations.
- Virtual organisations can also seek accountability in terms of individuals’ roles and responsibilities to balance their workload and prioritise tasks – crucial in an inclusive workplace. They also need to acknowledge and actively support workers who struggle with issues around mental, emotional and physical health and well-being by working virtually.
United in Diversity and Virtuality
As anyone who has worked remotely can attest to, the vast majority of work can be completed with a computer. Virtual businesses take advantage of that by trimming unnecessary costs. This could include outsourcing nearly all of its business functions such as product development, marketing, sales, and shipping.
Employees can also manage their work and personal lives more flexibly, and they have the opportunity to interact with colleagues around the world. But communication challenges can be magnified in a team dynamic, where multiple people are trying to collaborate and brainstorm. And when you have team members from all over the world, with different norms and cultural backgrounds, the risk of misunderstandings and resentment grows exponentially.
Thus, virtual firms need to build a productive workplace culture where employees feel valued and thrive. To achieve this, Prof. Parker suggests that:
- Firstly, research shows that isolation is a significant problem for remote workers so companies should offer opportunities for dialogue (e.g. daily chats, virtual coffee breaks) to build social bonds, collective spirit and a sense of inclusion and being heard. A survey by EY’s Centre for Talent Innovation in 2019 found that nearly two-fifths of respondents feel the greatest sense of belonging when colleagues check in with them, both personally and professionally.
- Second, D&I policies which frame company values and make clear what is expected of employees need ongoing review (e.g. of online etiquette, feedback talks, who is receiving stretch projects) to ensure all employees are treated and evaluated fairly. Companies can also conduct surveys (e.g. on pay equity) to help reveal and remedy any gaps by gender, ethnicity, age or other dimensions.
- Third, during and post-lockdown, virtual firms can make sure that online communication tools are used as channels for flexible and efficient communication that promotes inclusion (e.g. via chat messaging alongside visual and verbal options for more introverted employees – see earlier).
- Fourth, a ‘growth mindset’ culture, premised on high trust relations, encourages employees to highlight with impunity what they need to feel valued and attain their work aspirations. Virtual firms can then reflect on how to make provision for employee characteristics, circumstances and development when staff are not located in a physical office. By asking employees how best to do this, inclusivity (and democracy) is encouraged, both in terms of gathering those suggestions and providing substantive responses.