Fostering Inclusive Remote Workplaces

Hawley Brett

In these times, many teams are now figuring out how to best work together remotely, perhaps for the first time. As we’re thinking about strategies for remote work, it’s important to consider how we can make our remote workplaces inclusive. This is especially important now because many people are not only dealing with the abrupt change to remote work, but also may be balancing child and family care, or dealing with any number of changes and difficulties due to the pandemic.

The good news is that as we shift to working remotely, we can practice strategies to help make our meetings, processes, and cultures inclusive. This is going to be a time of change, and one thing we can do that’s positive is to look towards ways we can grow. We should be open to ideas about how we can better work together and foster an inclusive remote working environment. We should be empathetic, compassionate, and understanding of others. At thoughtbot, we already have in our playbook some resources on inclusivity, including a printable pdf for running inclusive meetings, and guides on inclusive culture, but with the shift many companies are making to remote work, I want to share some strategies for fostering inclusivity that are especially relevant to working together remotely.

Running remote meetings

Use the chat to say “next” to line up who speaks next

It’s important that everyone in a meeting gets a chance to offer their ideas. In a remote meeting, this can be challenging when there’s lag between talking, or there are more people in the meeting than you can see on screen at one time. Ideally, everyone should be able to speak uninterrupted.

One strategy is to use the chat feature in video conferencing apps to say “next” when you want to talk. Then, people speak in order of the list. This ensures that everyone will get a turn to speak, and it’s important to really stick to it, rather than speaking out of turn. If you do speak out of turn and realize you’ve done so, you can simply say sorry and wrap up to let the next person go. To manage the next up list, either participants can keep track of when they’re up next and jump in, or, after one person is done speaking they can call out the next person to go.

Switch who takes notes

Switch around who takes notes, so one person doesn’t become the default note taker, which can be a microaggression if it’s happening consistently. If there’s a rotation instead, you can share the responsibility evenly.

Step up, Step Back

This one may be familiar! We include it in our inclusive meeting guidelines, and it’s worth remembering as we shift to remote – “After you speak, let others speak. If you are speaking often, make sure others have had a chance to say something.” The way this translates to using the “next” in line strategy is that you should be mindful if you’re saying “next” more than others, or, if you want to speak up more, feel free to jump in more often with a “next”.

Include the young people

If children/young people at home are curious about the big party going on on the screen, let them be introduced and check out what’s going on. They’re not going to remember the IP anyway! Be understanding if they’re running around in the background of a video, or a parent needs to tend to them. We were all thrown into suddenly being at home, so it’s good to be understanding of whatever that means for your colleagues.

Managing Schedules

Scheduling meetings should be inclusive too. Many people are adjusting to new schedules right now. This might be especially true for parents who have kids at home. And if you’re used to being in person at the office, it may feel harder to know what your teammates’ schedules are like. Keep in mind these tips when scheduling meetings in order to bring everyone in.

Use a calendar app

If everyone is in the office, it’s easier to know if someone is available. While remote, using a calendar app is crucial.

Block out your schedule on the calendar so that your colleagues can see when you’re available (and, importantly, when you’re not). If you’re feeling like meetings are getting scheduled at times that are unsustainable for you, consider blocking out more time to let your teammates know your schedule. For example, people might schedule you for a meeting at 11, noon, and 1 – but then when are you going to have lunch? Adding “Lunch” to your calendar will help show your teammates that you’re going to be taking a break then. Keeping your schedule up to date will help you establish your schedule, and it’s a courtesy to your teammates for when they are looking to schedule meetings.

When you’re booking a meeting, look at your colleagues’ calendars to find a time that fits for everyone. Check their time zones to make sure you’re not asking them to come to a meeting outside of their working hours, or ask them when a good time would be if you’re unsure. Be understanding about rescheduling, since we’re all adjusting to very abrupt changes, and many are caring for children at home.

Invite everyone who should be there, avoiding silos

In an office it might be easier to get everyone together. When scheduling remote meetings, make sure you’re inviting all relevant people. You don’t want to be having side conversations and leaving colleagues out of discussions. Instead, aim so that everyone is able to participate.

Respect people’s hours, and work at a sustainable pace

Often when working remotely, people struggle with maintaining boundaries around when they are working, and when they’re not. We can help each other maintain these boundaries by not pressing others beyond their stated boundaries. That means things like not sending messages outside of work hours, finding meeting times that work for everyone, and using asynchronous communication tools as much as possible.

If you’re a manager, consider allowing for flexible schedules, and lead by example by not pushing people to respond to messages outside of their hours. Recognize also that working remotely is a skill in and of itself, and skills take time to learn and cultivate. Allowing for some flexibility for adjusting to remote work will help improve the team’s ability to do good work at a sustainable pace – otherwise, people will be on track towards burnout.

While this may seem like general remote working advice, I wanted to include it in the discussion on inclusivity, because no-one can really show up to work, as themselves, or fully, if they’re being pushed too far, especially in this time of transition. Moreover, the effects of the pandemic will likely hit people differently based on respective privileges – people dealing with anything on top of the transition to remote work, like housing insecurity, child or elder care, struggles with mental health, or even having less space in their home to work versus others, are going to be hit harder. It’s important that we all respect one another’s boundaries and be sympathetic to what colleagues might be going through. Don’t assume that your colleagues have the same privileges as you might have, which might make it easier for you to work remotely or at certain times than it is for them. What you can probably safely assume is that this situation is really hard for most people, and thus we should seek to be empathetic and compassionate in all our interactions.

EQ & Remote Communication

At thoughtbot, I recently joined the Emotional Quotient task force (EQ - like IQ, but to be honest I didn’t get the reference at first because there are so many acronyms these days, you never know)! And though not an expert in this topic, I think that EQ is an ever more important skill to cultivate as we go remote.

Slow down, over-communicate, and consider the impact of your words

When communicating over text, it can be hard to determine tone and other subtle forms of communication, like facial expressions and body language. This means we should all slow down to consider the impact of our words, and make sure that we’re using language that is clear and respectful. If you’ve typed something and have pause about how it could be read, that’s probably a time to step back, analyze the text for implicit or explicit bias or offensive content, and adjust it to instead be clearly stated and free from biased assumptions. If you think of a joke that might offend someone, it’s probably wise to not make the joke at all. Think about how you can make sure that your intent matches the impact of your words. If they don’t match, and either you realize it or somebody points it out, apologize and make a commitment to do better going forward. Remember that impact is more important than intent – even if you didn’t intend to offend someone, if you did end up doing so, you should take responsibility for that impact. This is of course all true in in-person communication, but when working remotely, and in these stressful times, you should be especially mindful of how your words will be received.

In remote communication, it can also be helpful to assume good intentions if someone comes across in a negative way. That should not be at the cost of holding people to account for what they say. But if it’s a situation where you’re comfortable doing so, you can ask for clarification if you think somebody said something they didn’t mean or wouldn’t wish to imply, giving them a chance to clarify or apologize. Doing so can help create a cultural norm of resisting discrimination and harassment, which is a great norm to have. Of course, if somebody has crossed a line, it’s on them, and not you, and appropriate actions should be taken. Assuming good intentions doesn’t mean giving a pass on inappropriate behavior. Rather it’s just a good place to start for resolving minor miscommunications and trying to understand where someone else is coming from, especially when we don’t have other contextual clues like we do for in-person communication.

Set up Slack to promote inclusive language

Relatedly, one way we encourage inclusive language at thoughtbot is by setting up our Slack to detect when exclusionary terms are used, and to respond with suggestions for what else to say instead. For example, if you say “lame”, which is stigmatizing, the slack bot will suggest other words, in this case, “boring” / “uninteresting” / “monotonous” / “uncool”. We all may make mistakes, but we can cultivate a culture of inclusion by acknowledging them and learning how to do better. The slack bot is one way to help make it cultural norm to call out biased language and teach inclusive language instead. Here is the list of words we currently use for replacements. It’s not exhaustive, but everyone on the team can add to it over time. You can set up your own replacements under your-slack-

Be open to change

If you don’t already have a venue where your team can propose changes to processes and company culture, it’s ever more important now to have one. Probably, most companies don’t already have a playbook for switching to 100% remote overnight! And with people adjusting to the circumstances, it’s really important to listen to what they identify as ideas for improvements.

At thoughtbot, we use Github issues on our company handbook as a place where people can make suggestions and have discussions about how we do things. We also have a monthly chat in each of our studios, where we reflect on how we’re doing and have space to ask questions. Making space for these types of conversations will allow for ideas to be shared and new strategies to be identified.

At a former job, we built in time in our weekly sprint planning for reviewing any company process or norm people wanted to talk about. We didn’t always take that time, but it was important to have a dedicated space for it, because that encourages these types discussions to happen, and invites everyone in. Overall, we should be looking for ways that everyone can contribute to our new remote work cultures.

We’re going to be dealing with lots of changes – to our work, our home lives, our emotions, our world. To some extent, these changes won’t be under our control. But we can take this opportunity to make sure we change in ways that are positive, and ways that grow our teams to be even more inclusive, even more compassionate, and even better at teamwork and collaboration.