It’s important to pay special attention to those who aren’t included by default within the policy of working from the office, from parents and minority groups to those with disabilities.
Some companies are beginning the transition of bringing employees back to the office, but many people have discovered they have a preference for remote working – especially those who feel office environments have not always been suitable for their needs.
There is a risk of losing these team members to other companies with a remote-first way of working, which can be incredibly damaging to the diversity of your teams. It’s important to pay special attention to those who aren’t included by default within the policy of working from the office, from parents and minority groups to those with disabilities. I’m going to lay out why this is important for each of these groups, and share some tips for making the return to the office as inclusive as possible.
Many individuals with childcare responsibilities welcomed remote working, as it enabled them to balance their duties in a more flexible way than when they were in an office. Aside from this challenge of balancing work and home responsibilities, returning to the office brings up the issue of out-of-hours events like group socials, which can make those with childcare responsibilities feel isolated if they are unable to attend and bond with the team.
By allowing flexible, asynchronous working, with the option of partial remote working, you can enable those with childcare responsibilities to retain their work/life balance. You can also allocate time for socials within working days so that everyone can join and enjoy these benefits of the office.
Unfortunately, despite parents proving commitment throughout the pandemic, there is still a stigma around folks taking the ‘easy’ route by requesting more flexible working. Access to childcare varies within families, with some parents having family nearby for support, and others having to arrange childcare through other means. That’s why it’s important to make options available without relying on people’s individual requests. With the rise of technology assisting flexible working, it’s not difficult to embrace this and ensure those with childcare responsibilities are included in workplaces.
Supporting minority groups
Many people across different minority groups have felt the office environment hasn’t allowed them to be their authentic selves. Aside from outright discrimination, minority groups lack the general psychological comfort that the majority group experiences. Some folks may not feel included or able to participate in social events (for example, activities that include drinking alcohol exclude those who abstain due to religious, cultural, or medical reasons). Remote working has allowed these individuals to focus on their core responsibilities, giving them the opportunity to thrive in their work without the pressure of ‘fitting in’ despite their differences.
We must take the opportunity of returning to the office to learn more about minority groups, and ensure the workplace is a more inclusive and psychologically safe environment than before the pandemic. Different cultural traditions should be celebrated, and social events should be organized with different dietary needs and attitudes towards alcohol in mind.
Rather than putting pressure on folks from minority groups to speak up and take action within the organization, there are many consultants on diversity and inclusion who are better placed to be this voice. Whilst voluntary participation should be welcomed, and engineering leaders should be available and ready to hear and act upon their teams’ concerns, employees shouldn’t be expected to take on this work to fix a problem that is very personal, and that requires them to be vulnerable.
Supporting those with disabilities
Remote working has given those with disabilities an opportunity to create working environments that fully cater to their individual needs, whether this is through the use of assistive technology, or workspace modifications. The return to the office could be incredibly damaging to those with disabilities if they have to give up these features.
Disabilities can be both visible and invisible, so you need to communicate clearly with folks to understand their needs for a working environment that suits them. For example, try sending an online form to all those who will be returning to the office, allowing them to easily specify what support they need. This helps folks to feel more comfortable asking for support, rather than putting the onus on them to do all of the outreach (which can be incredibly isolating). If you discover that an employee does have more complex needs, conduct deeper reviews to make sure you understand their situation. Once you’ve collected the information, the organization is responsible for acting on it to ensure workplaces are well-equipped to welcome everyone back to the office.
That might mean making adjustments to individual desks or providing alternatives to hot desks, which may not be suitable for some employees due to the specific modifications they require. At social events, you need to cater for all those with a visible or invisible disability, which may be physical, neurological, or otherwise. The important thing is providing an environment where individuals feel comfortable disclosing their disabilities and trust that their needs will be met, and this trust is best earned by making noticeable changes to working environments.
Too often, minority groups are not included in discussions about returning to the workplace. Not only is this noninclusive (and unfair) but it also leads to unnecessary employee turnover as people look to join other companies that meet their needs. As an engineering leader in an organization that is choosing to return to the office, it’s important to pay special attention to these groups, listen to people’s experiences, and make tangible changes to your workplace or working patterns, so that you can make the experience more inclusive for everyone.