Build an inclusive community and culture in remote virtual work-related spaces

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The fall semester is here for us accounting professors. While I taught an asynchronous online course during the summer, I know I will have my work cut out for me as I embark on teaching synchronous accounting courses this fall. I will not have previously met most of my students in person. In the past when I started new roles in Corporate America, I took a lot of time during my first few weeks on the job to get to know my colleagues and to build trust and community with them.

Preparing to teach this semester had me reflecting on how one can build inclusive community and culture in remote virtual work-related spaces. How can leaders, managers and colleagues prepare to virtually engage and coach each other this fall? This fall will be like no other for many of us. How can we adapt techniques that educators and educational institutions use in preparing for online classes to our fall work lineup?

Partnership agreements

In this case, partnership agreements aren’t legal documents filled with jargon intended to protect business parties in the cause of a lawsuit. The partnership agreements used in the academic realm are more of an agreement for each person to do their part to make sure every person can do their best work. For example, on the first day of a class, the instructor and students will write on a physical or virtual board what their needs and rules are for the class to be a success. This list will be formatted and provided to all to sign.

Oftentimes in business, people who lack or were not trained in leadership skills are promoted into management roles. These managers may not be experts at communication or inclusivity. Therefore, an organization may want to engage a business coach or trainer to help internal teams do such exercises and be on the same page. This fall, being in agreement will be more critical than ever.

With regard to inclusion, having such an agreement can make diverse and different team members feel as if they belong and matter. It can make them feel more engaged and psychologically safe within their teams. Personally, I have felt better at roles where my input is requested and I am not just spoken to when someone is assigning work. Make everyone feel valued and seen by hearing what they need from you to succeed on an individual and team basis.

Office hours and check-ins

When I went to college, I do not recall having any office hour meetings with any of my professors. Nowadays, some educational institutions require faculty to hold office hours. Even though I only work as a part-time educator, I have seen firsthand how helpful these one-on-one meetings are for students. These meetings also can help foster informal mentoring.

In the workplace, it’s critical that employees know when and how they can speak to their immediate supervisor and department head. Does the person have an open door policy? Does the person meet by appointment only? I recall working for a woman who said she had an open door policy. When I’d stop by her office, she wouldn’t ask me to have a seat and tried to quickly answer my questions and dismiss me at the door.

When I emailed her to schedule a meeting to discuss a project that she had assigned to me, she said she was busy, and to figure it out myself. I did my best and can say I have never done such a poor job as I did on that project. When she was reviewing the project, she asked me why I hadn’t gone to her for help. I forwarded her the email where I repeatedly tried to schedule a time to speak with her, and she kept telling me she didn’t have time to speak to me. I would see her in the halls and in other people’s offices chatting and didn’t feel too welcome at that job. I moved on to greener pastures. Had she had better communication and supervisory skills and checked in with me to see how the project was going, and sat down with me when she assigned the project to discuss all the project entailed, I would have done a great job and stayed with the company longer.

As we work virtually remotely this fall, we cannot leave communication up to chance or expect others to follow up with us. Each person has to be mindful of their time and the time of others. Meetings can be short and sweet and held over the phone to avoid video call fatigue, but there must be regular check-ins to ensure all is going well and that team members are truly receiving all the support and information they need to succeed.

Asynchronous and synchronous

Asynchronous courses provide all the material for students to review and complete on their own timing. Synchronous courses require students to log on at a specific time. Working from home, working from anywhere, assisting children with distance learning and/or returning to school in person after months of quarantine, and tending to other personal life disruptions caused by the pandemic and the emotional drain caused by racial and financial tensions can drain staff members to say the least.

Teams need to make sure there aren’t too many meetings held for the sake of having meetings. Perhaps instead of a full department or cross-functional team meeting, people can break out into groups and have actual work meetings where they are moving things along, not just rehashing the same points to no avail. Providing team members with clear instructions and resources, along with a flexible schedule, can help accommodate the life disruptions and increase productivity. Work should not be 9 to 5 only, and people should not be expected to log in to video calls at the drop of a hat or all day long.

Learning management systems

Educational institutions use learning management systems to centralize course materials on a course-by-course basis. As you can imagine, some instructors don’t use these systems and students are left scrambling using Dropbox, Google Drive and learning management system accounts their instructor decided to create on their own. It’s a bit challenging for students to hustle and use multiple systems. The same goes with employees.

Where possible, make sure your organization has centralized its organizational and departmental resources. Make sure every team member knows where to find the resources they need to get their job done, where to file their work, and how to send things to clients. Work with your IT department, etc., to make sure that people use VPNs, portals, directories and any other systems your organization has implemented efficiently. If the departmental supervisors do not have the time or desire to train the staff, have someone record a video tutorial that can be assessed by all intended users. Working from home can be stressful. Not being able to properly use the company’s systems can add more stress.

Mentoring, coaching, wellness, financial assistance

Educational institutions are doing a fantastic job and making sure that students have everything they need to attend school and live with dignity and health. Food pantries, equipment loans, emergency grants and mental help support are just a few of the things that schools are doing to help students. Some schools and organizations are partnering with other organizations to provide mentoring and tutoring for students.

Does your organization have a formal mentoring program? Does your organization have a formal business-coaching program? Does your organization offer benevolent types of awards to employees, alumni and stakeholders? Part of inclusion is being able to assess if the company perks and benefits are benefiting people from all wealth classes. What good are discounts to theaters and restaurants right now when some employees are struggling to put food on the table because they are supporting family members who have lost their jobs? If the managers in your organization do not have the leadership or time to mentor staff, consider sponsoring diverse staff’s affinity professional association membership fees so that staff can engage in communities that support them during this time.

Research, service and academic

In academia, full-time faculty are expected to divide their time on a host of things. The same is true in the corporate sector. During these challenging times, it’s critical that staff members are not micromanaged and kept busy for the sake of being busy. Align additional projects with things that bring visibility to junior staff, with the strong suits of employees, with things that truly matter to the organization’s success. If the organization or department has not been effective in managing projects in the past, perhaps assistance can be retained from project managing consultants. Alignment and action matter.

Learning to build community and culture in remote virtual work-related places can be challenging, but it can be a journey as beautiful as fall foliage. Be well. Be kind. Be inclusive.

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Diversity and equality Accounting education Mentoring Partnership agreement Practice management Work from home Coronavirus