Inclusion in the new era of work

13 Sept 2020     By Alison Maitland

BY MOST ACCOUNTS, we are moving into a new era of work. For those who typically worked in an office, the Covid-19 crisis has tipped the balance decisively in favour of workplace flexibility.

The knowledge workforce of the future looks set to be much more ‘distributed’ – located partly in offices, partly at home, and partly in other places.

How can leaders and managers take inclusive action to get the best from all their people in this fast-changing environment?

A world outside the office

CBRE, a real estate services firm, recently surveyed 126 client companies around the world. Over 60% said that all employees would be able to work outside the office at least part of the time in future. This chimes with survey findings about people’s working preferences:

  • Three-quarters of US employees who are able to work from home would like to do so one or more days a week in the future, according to tech company Morning Consult
  • A global survey by Lenovo found that half of employees in India would be happy if homeworking replaced the office
  • In the UK, only 24% of respondents want to return to the office full time, according to Okta, an identity management firm

Before the pandemic, many employers still struggled to trust employees to work away from the office as the norm. Now those attitudes look obsolete.

The crisis has reinforced the case for this change

The business case for distributed working has been reinforced by the fact that so many companies were able to keep going during lockdown. Surveys show that many people feel their work quality and productivity have been as good as, or better than, before. This is remarkable considering that a lot of workers have faced extraordinary demands, such as home schooling, during this time as well.

Other benefits are gaining hold too. Atlassian, an Australian software group, is telling employees they can choose to work in the office or at home, or a mix, seeing this as a way to access a broader, more diverse talent pool. Scott Farquhar, co-head of the business, was quoted on as saying ‘We will no longer be held back by the old way of doing things – being cautious, fiercely protecting our norms and not reaching great talent beyond our offices.’

But will some people be ‘left out’?

None of this means the shift will be easy. It poses many challenges. There’s a risk that, without careful design, some people will be overlooked or undervalued in this mixed workforce, particularly those further from the centre (if there is still a centre).

So how can businesses enable everyone to contribute to their full potential, without encountering unnecessary obstacles? How can they ensure that no one is left out, regardless of who they are and where in the world they are working?

Inclusion is essential to get the most out of a diverse and distributed workforce.

How managers behave towards their teams is important. But it’s only one part of a comprehensive response. Many elements – strategy, skills and support mechanisms – need to be in place to be sure of getting the best results.

To align all these component parts, it’s important to adopt a whole-system approach to building inclusion.

This is what Rebekah Steele and I set out in our book INdivisible. It’s an approach that integrates how people feel and act with processes that underpin and guide their actions. It addresses everyone at every level, and it takes account of external trends and factors as well as what’s happening inside the organisation.

How to ensure full inclusion

How can you use this approach to develop, manage and get the best results from a distributed workforce?

Here’s an example of what a whole-system inclusion framework looks like in this case:

Business strategy: Your company decides to accelerate distributed working because it ensures business continuity, cuts costs, increases productivity, safety and adaptability to customer needs, and attracts a broader mix of talent.

Leadership capability: To ensure the success of this strategy, your company promotes people who are skilled at inclusive communication, empathy, and building trust. Leaders must be capable of fostering connection (the lockdown has underlined the need for human connection), sharing power with others, and ensuring that everyone steps up and takes responsibility for results.

People capability: Training and development, tailored to the pace of each person, improves technological skills and skills in working with a diverse mix of people across different teams, locations and cultures.

Organisation structure: Special teams seek out opportunities to improve distributed working and to remove barriers, whether organisational or technological. They ensure there is a suitable location for all work circumstances, taking into account that not everyone has a home where they can work easily.

Processes: There are processes to: ensure that job performance is assessed on outcomes, not hours; provide suitable technology that takes account of each person’s wellbeing and needs; enable everyone’s voice to be heard. Without clear processes, it is easy to slip into excluding or depleting practices such as rewarding the most ‘visible’ people, listening to the loudest voices, or scheduling back-to-back conference calls.

Metrics and rewards: Your company assesses and rewards leaders and managers on how well they empower individuals, regardless of their work location, and on the results this creates for the organisation.

Individual assumptions: Employees can take it for granted that working in a range of locations is a positive choice for the business and for their career.

External factors: Your company’s flexibility reduces unnecessary business travel and emissions. Its business strategy aligns with external measures and regulations to address the climate emergency, as well as with changing workforce expectations.

In our book, we call on companies to go further too, taking collective action for a more inclusive and sustainable world. For an example of how businesses can act together to promote work flexibility, I recommend a short guide by Australia’s Male Champions of Change called ‘Accelerating change on flexible ways of working‘.

This is an edited version of my column that was first published by IWE on 13 Sept 2020

©Alison Maitland 2020, all rights reserved

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