by Megan Bigelow

3 steps to creating an inclusive remote workplace

Jun 04, 20205 mins
Collaboration SoftwareDiversity and InclusionIT Leadership

Bringing your whole self to work now includes showing up with your socioeconomic class as the backdrop and brings new challenges around equity and access.

video conferencing / remote work
Credit: Filadendron / Getty Images

As a result of COVID-19, all tech workers are now working from home. This means that the mantra of “bringing your whole self to work,” a concept introduced by Mike Robbins, invariably includes a requirement to show your colleagues your most personal space of all: your home.

When I landed my first remote job two years ago, I was mentally ready for it. Exchanging the commute and hallway drama for the convenience of being home all day to accept packages and start the laundry would allow me to be more productive. For all of my emotional readiness, however, I was vastly underprepared for the physical and material requirements of working full-time at home.

After a year of trial and error and significant money spent on a basement remodel, standing desk and noise-cancelling headphones, I now have a private office with a door and a whiteboard. Luckily for me, my journey involved the benefit of money and time before COVID-19 hit. Now, with nearly every tech worker working from home, we must confront the reality that many people are now required to make visible their lack of access to home office luxuries.

Here are 3 ways leaders can level the playing field.

Respect people’s space

Early in my remote-work journey, there were times I’d have meetings and absolutely no quiet place in the house to take them. In these situations, I ended up using the unfinished storage room in my basement. At the time, virtual backgrounds didn’t exist, and it was critical to our company culture to have our video on, so I would just suck it up and take the heat. As soon as I would join, someone would invariably laugh and another person would make a comment or, worse, a joke. Even though I would laugh it off — “Seriously, I’m relegated to the basement!” — it was still humiliating. I felt woefully unprofessional. Thankfully, virtual backgrounds are now a common video conferencing feature, and there are many free options for images, but it is critically important as a leader that you make it comfortable for people as they navigate this.

In addition to making it acceptable to use virtual backgrounds in meetings, build a culture of not commenting on people’s workspace (or lack thereof, no matter what). Just as you wouldn’t comment on someone’s person, hold the same respect for their office space. It’s best to avoid commentary because creating a culture of positive observations can lead to people with nice home offices or pretty views receiving all the attention. For the individual working out of his or her storage closet, the lack of compliments can be as painful as receiving negative comments.

Provide proper equipment

Working at the kitchen table is manageable for a couple of weeks, but eventually the discomfort and distraction of trying to work from the hub of the household will take its toll. And the shopping list to achieve a home workspace that’s on par with a standard office is long and expensive and may be out of reach for many. Desk, chair, monitor, headphones, webcam, keyboard, mouse… the list goes on and on. The ideal scenario is to reimburse employees for proper equipment or allow them to borrow what they need from the office. At a minimum, reimburse for headphones. This allows employees to properly hear and be heard in meetings and helps reduce the background noises associated with sharing space with others in a household.

Make accommodations

High-speed internet is a significant personal expense, and in some homes or neighborhoods, it requires additional equipment that can be out of reach due to cost. For workers who spend most of their time writing documentation or sending emails, slow internet isn’t immediately apparent to others or themselves, but it certainly becomes an issue when you introduce video meetings into the mix. In addition, certain areas (particularly rural ones) may have access only to a shared internet consumption model, with bandwidth impacted by neighbors’ usage. As leaders, it is critical not to take this access for granted and remember that it is directly tied to one’s socioeconomic class.

What you can do is reimburse all or part of the cost and make accommodations when internet problems manifest during meetings. For example, be flexible with the use of video, allowing people to call into meetings from their phones or do as much as possible asynchronously. I recently discovered that doing one-on-one meetings via a shared document can sometimes be an alternative to a live meeting. You can also use chat tools like Slack as another way to communicate.

The bottom line is, as the leader, it is up to you to generate and support creative ways to overcome barriers, even those as fundamental as internet access.