How Leaders Can Handle Remote Work’s Diversity Challenge

Employees from underrepresented groups may not be handling the Zoom environment as well as you think. One association executive shares his thoughts on how to address remote-work disconnects.

Remote work can in many ways seem to be a great democratizing force. There are no corner offices because everybody is working at home. And though we might weary of seeing each other in little Zoom boxes, at least those boxes are all the same size.

But as with many things on screens, appearances can be deceptive. Remote work can also risk sustaining office biases, presenting another challenge to your association’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Earlier this month the New York Times reported on how virtual offices tend to sustain divisions and separate people of color from office support networks. “When the leader is looking for someone to take up the mantle, most of them go to the comfort zone of people who remind them of themselves,” McKinsey consultant Sara Prince told the Times. “This is exacerbated by the virtual office.”

Similarly, in June Harvard Business Review featured an essay by business professors Laura Morgan Roberts and Courtney L. McCluney titled “Working From Home While Black,” detailing how the Zoom environment challenges Black workers’ ability to code-switch to fit into a (predominantly white) office environment. “‘Professionalism’ is coded,” they write. “Anyone who doesn’t fit this ideal image of professionalism walks a tightrope through this period of experimentation with work-from-home rituals.”

Nobody should be surprised that race and gender divisions are still intact from a distance, says Nathan Victoria, CAE, executive director of the Society for Personality Assessment and a Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University researching workplace bias. (He co-presented the session “Disrupting Biases: Uncovering How Privileges Manifest at Associations” at the ASAE Virtual Annual Meeting & Exposition last month.) “The pandemic has really just brought to light many of the things people were seeing beforehand already,” he says.

But he notes that the pandemic, combined with the conversations around social justice following the killing of George Floyd in police custody in May, have hastened associations’ efforts to address those biases. Doing so isn’t simple, but Victoria offered four points to consider for association leaders looking to create a more equitable and inclusive remote-work space.

Who are those people that are going to make sure you get out of the systems and structures that you’re used to?

Acknowledge that, for some workers, a Zoom call requires a deep breath. Roberts and McCluney write that many Black workers are concerned that “windows into their personal lives could amplify portrayals of them as the ‘other.’” More bluntly, Victoria recalls a conversation with a Black coworker who said she would join a videoconference via a coffee shop. “I’m going to forget the exact words, but she essentially said, ‘I’m not going to let that white woman see my house,’” Victoria says. “There’s a tension in bringing the outside in, and I think the tension of blending for people of color is a little bit harder.”

Cultivate transparency from the top down. Openness and availability for conversation is critical in a remote environment. Victoria asks his staff to keep their calendars openly available—and does so himself—to “show that we’re trying to be an intentionally inclusive culture.” That’s not explicitly a DEI action, but it can be effective in that regard; as the Times story notes, access to leaders is particularly important at this moment.

Find a cultural broker. Leading across race, ethnicity, and gender isn’t a go-it-alone proposition. Victoria says leaders should ask themselves, “Who are those people that are going to make sure you get out of the systems and structures that you’re used to and intentionally find these other places?” That doesn’t mean white executives should single out a staff person of color to question about every cultural nuance. It does mean building authentic relationships with staffers that, combined with education through other organizations, can help those leaders understand pain points when they emerge. “It’s about the relationships before the need,” he says.

Uncomfortable conversations can be good news. Studies have shown that many employees of color are often quietly disengaged in the workplace. So if your staff is raising issues of bias in the office, that speaks to a certain comfort level with the issue. “If you’re not getting negative feedback, that could mean that those who are not from the norm within the group just don’t feel comfortable raising concerns yet,” Victoria says. Looking for more positive evidence of progress? That’s relatively simple: “Are your staff recommending other people to work there?” he says. “When you have a new job posting, are people of color sharing it in their networks?”

(FilippoBacci/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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