Building More Inclusive Cultures At Work While We’re At Home


By now, you may have noticed it: an apparent “we’re in this together” vibe. On the street, in the neighborhood, on TV, and yes — even on conference calls — people are often friendlier, waving, and taking a moment. Many conversations these days begin with or are dominated by COVID-19 concerns — a sharing and comparing of our journeys through this. On one hand, in a most ironic way, this social isolation is increasing our awareness of our shared culture and our need for connection. Amidst all the challenges and fears we are experiencing, we miss each other! Could it be that herein lies a hidden opportunity to build more inclusive future cultures at work — while we are all at home?

On the other hand, the “we’re in this together” vibe may not be all that it seems. While it can create an important sense of camaraderie, it also glosses over important differences. As this crisis unfolds, it is increasingly true that “we” are experiencing this pandemic in many different and often hidden ways. Many people are losing their jobs, with or without savings to sustain them. Many people have loved ones whose health is more vulnerable or already in jeopardy. Many people have loving homes in which to shelter in place, but many do not. Many people have access to the Internet and technologies that make remote work possible, while many do not. What’s more, this type of crisis tends to amplify existing inequities, especially those related to race, class, language, ability, and other marginalized identities. Structural and environmental biases, racism, and income inequality make it disproportionately difficult for these groups to work remotely, and to navigate and benefit from health and financial systems, putting them at greater risk for both exposure to the virus and to its economic and social ripple effects.

Now, as we hunker down in social distancing, it is important to recognize that the norms associated with both our workplace cultures and society at large are changing. In our research at NCWIT, we define culture as a shared set of norms and values. Culture is, if nothing else, dynamic. Our experience of culture is a conversation between ourselves and the larger community we belong to. And, that conversation is rapidly evolving. If we are alert and attend to the differences noted above, this can be an opportunity for our cultural norms and values to respond for the better…towards creating more inclusive cultures, now and in the future.

Here are three suggestions for doing so:

  1. Recognize we’re in this together, but it’s NOT the same for everyone.

    At NCWIT, we talk a lot about the importance of attending to and interrupting everyday biases. Being attentive to different and nuanced ways these biases are playing out now is all the more important. We can start by recognizing and interrupting the subtle biases that lie behind a simple interpretation of being “in this together.”

    What Individuals Can Do: Seek to understand the experience of our colleagues and their families. That means employing a “spirit of inquiry,” taking the time to ask and to listen. This could be in the first few minutes of team meetings or planned informal virtual get togethers. It also means intentionally seeking out information about various group’s experiences (for example, communities of color, socioeconomic status/income inequality; LGBTQ+ communities; people with disabilities — to start).

    What Organizations/Leaders Can Do: Personally check-in with direct reports and open a conversation about particular needs during this time. Some of these might include: 1) ensuring adequate access to paid sick leave policies, 2) letting people take time off without penalty, 3) providing translation services where needed, 4) providing financial and emotional support to the employees and their families most hard hit, and 5) ensuring all employees have access to remote work technologies. In addition, it is likely that social distancing orders will be eased before the threat is really under control, which may be even more stressful and dangerous for those with vulnerable health status and/or vulnerable family members. Be flexible and conscientious about ongoing risk rather than expecting a hasty return to normal.

  2. Going remote requires us to see each other with new eyes.

    In tech, many of us are used to working remotely, but now more of us than ever are doing so. On video calls we are now seeing more of each other’s lives. Whether it’s as simple as catching surprising glimpses of someone’s home in the background or children coming to sit on your lap in the middle of the meeting, we are seeing many more of our intersecting identities and blurring traditional boundaries between our personal and professional selves. Understandably, this introduces risk and vulnerability — especially for populations marginalized by race, gender expression, sexual orientation, or anyone who may not have been able to bring as much of their full selves to work in the past, but who now suddenly find themselves in this reality. This, however, also brings opportunity.

    What Individuals Can Do: This exposure of multiple identities requires that we appreciate and learn about each other in new ways. We need to see each other with compassion and empathy, and establish norms that come to view such vulnerability not as a weakness — but as a faculty that invites us to a deeper understanding of our teams and perhaps of ourselves in the process.

    What Organizations/Leaders Can Do: This alternate view of vulnerability becomes especially powerful when exhibited by leaders. It also has the power to establish a new norm when we all return to work — that is, to continue to value the blurring of the personal and the professional. Doing so can be a significant step toward building more inclusive cultures given that artificial distinctions between these two arenas have long been a workplace barrier for women and other underrepresented groups (e.g., having to downplay conversations about family events or concerns).

  3. Recreate your culture by design rather than default.

    As we said earlier, our experience of culture is a conversation between ourselves and the larger community we belong to. Given this crisis, that conversation is rapidly evolving and will ultimately reshape our cultures, whether we attend to this process or not. So, now is the time to be intentional about how that happens.

    What We All Can Do: Enter the conversation. Leaders who start the conversation by forefronting their own vulnerability can make this happen. What does this look like? It begins, as noted above, with sharing our mutual experiences, but then evolves into an on-point discussion about what our changing norms and values are — and what we want them to be. For example, the adjustments being made now to improve remote work can be preserved to support your workforce after this crisis is over. Likewise, the work done to see each other with a “spirit of inquiry” can help us establish new norms that enable us to bring more of ourselves to work and to remain more curious and caring about each other’s lives. There is no predicting where this conversation will go, but wherever it goes, it signals to your team that we are in this together while also acknowledging our differences and that by entering the conversation together, we can navigate the stormy seas ahead. And that, friends, could be a pretty good start towards a more inclusive culture for here and now — as well as long into the future.