This question comes from Barry Phillips who is a former practising barrister specialising in employment and equity issues and is the Chair of Legal Island, a workplace compliance focused company working across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Barry is also the chair and founder of the online Diversity and Inclusion Discussion Forum. In Spring 2020, he reached out to us after reading The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook (here’s a photo of Barry holding his copy). Since then, Barry has been sharing about the Inclusion Nudges approach across his wide network of D&I professionals, HR, and leaders by steering them to the Inclusion Nudges website and resources.

Dear Lisa & Tinna,

How can we ensure that inclusion is part of ‘remote’ work?
Thank you,

Barry Phillips, BEM, Chair Legal Island

Great question, Barry, and thank you for inviting us to share our thoughts about this both in this blog post and at Legal Island’s annual D&I Summit in late March 2021. (Here is a recording of Lisa’s presentation.) There’s a lot that we could cover, but to start off in this posting, let’s focus on how framing perceptions can support inclusion in how we are working today. We will pick up other themes on inclusion and the ways we are working in future articles.

What we call ‘work’ matters – words matter

First, we probably should acknowledge that we have a language framing issue on what to call how and where work gets done now, due to the new work experiences caused by the pandemic lockdown (2020-2021). We (Tinna and Lisa) are stumbling and catching ourselves constantly on how to talk about work now—what words should we use!? Should we call it ‘virtual work’? Or ‘remote working’? Or simply ‘work’? Does it matter? We addressed this in a previous blog post on the need to reframe how we work today and also what we call it. And yes, it does matter.

We came to the conclusion to simply just say ‘work’ irrespective of where it gets done. And if we need to distinguish, we often say ‘online work’, ‘offline work’, and ‘in-person work’. Although we can’t predict that we’ll keep on using these terms. So much is still evolving on naming new work experiences resulting from the historic time with so many people working from home. One term and direction that is emerging for many people working in organisations (especially ‘knowledge workers’) is that work will become a blended ‘hybrid’ approach across personal offices and company offices. Did you notice how we didn’t say ‘home offices’? ?

Who’s valued

This focus on language and words is actually serious stuff.

Our perceptions and descriptions of each other, the work we do, and how it is done can have career-defining impact. Ways of working influences performance and potential judgements.

In one of Lisa’s past organisations, anyone who was designated as a ‘high potential talent’ but then went part-time was automatically (and without any discussion) removed from the ‘high potential list’. The underlying belief was that ‘part-time’ was equivalent with ‘part-time commitment’ – it didn’t equal ‘fully committed’ and thus they were viewed as less valuable to the company by the way they worked.

Another language implication is that prior to the Corona pandemic ‘work from home’ was frequently seen as less legitimate than other ways of working outside of the office, such as sales work or work during business travels. Automatically ‘home’ denoted ‘not a real workplace’ and thus ‘not real work’. This led to a framing of ‘work from home’ as a ‘working mother’s thing’ and not something that is open to all people. That’s really been put to the challenge with the experiences of many ‘knowledge workers’ during the pandemic having home as the only place to work.

What works: Change the default

As we create new ways of working going forward, we’ll need to notice and question the perceptions and models for how work happens. For example, instead of asking ‘Should we still work in a distributed way?’, try flipping this to a more inclusive default such as, ‘We work in multiple locations’ (and make a checklist with criteria to decide when to meet in person as a team or with colleagues/stakeholders and schedule it so all can participate). Make it the norm to ask ‘Why not continue to work from anywhere?’. This helps to reduce resistance and frees up innovative thinking by changing the default of ‘prove it’ (why) to ‘we do it’ (why not). This also works by starting from a position that ‘this is the norm’. Default design works like this – instead of asking people to ‘opt in’, by default they are all ‘in’ and have the freedom to ‘opt out’. In this case, this means that all can work where they want to without being implicitly sanctioned for not ‘fitting in’ and ‘not being committed enough’.

Aligned with this is an innovative approach that we’ve noticed of some organisations making the decision to go 100% ‘remote working’ as their usual way of working. This is described as ‘remote first’ or ‘virtual first’. This means that the default for how work gets done is remote, and when teams come together for in-person work this will be the exception to the norm.

Supporting that new approach and mindset, these companies have dropped the use the word ‘office’ and now call the company’s physical workplaces terms like ‘collaborative spaces’ and ‘company conference center’ to signal (frame) a purpose for why and when staff meet in person.

Hybrid office—watch out for ‘us’ and ‘them’

Today, we have some parts of the world re-emerging from the pandemic lockdowns and discussions about returning to the office. While at the same time, as we are writing this blog article, so many parts of the world have not yet achieved health stability to have such a discussion yet. Plus, employees around the world are expressing no interest in working in their company’s office as they did in the past, while leaders are pointing that a return is expected when possible. At the same time, many people cannot wait to get back into the physical space of the organisation to avoid a chaotic situation of working from home and many people miss working side-by-side (in person) with their colleagues.

It is not far-fetched to predict that we will see disparities in the new model of the hybrid workplace. What is clear is that there is low tolerance of the old workplace norm of presenteeism – a need to be seen in the office in order to be perceived as a great performer. To help lessen such a preference bias to the ‘inner circle’ of ‘office-based staff’, organisations will need heightened focus on applying designs to support inclusion of all regardless of where they work in the hybrid workplace. We’ll write about some of these process designs in future blog posts.

Want to explore more about how framing and words matters? Check out these other Inclusion Nudges blog articles:
Reframe Language on How We Work Today
Definitions Matter – Just Don’t Talk About Them. Diversity, Equity, Belonging, Inclusion

Thank you for asking the question.

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Questions will be slightly edited to fit the posting and for confidentiality as needed.