In the first of our partner perspective pieces, Luise Usiskin and James Fellows from Pinsent Masons LLP, a longterm St. Modwen partner and one of the highest-rated professional services in terms of diversity and inclusion, discuss the questions employers should be asking themselves in this new era of remote working.

When lockdown came into effect earlier this year, a large number of organisations were forced to rapidly adopt new technologies and working styles in a large-scale move towards home working. In many instances, there have been positive outcomes with minimal impact on productivity and performance.

But it’s worth remembering that this shift was made out of necessity during a crisis, and does not necessarily provide a model for how remote working should be. We need to pay attention to the ways in which the dispersal of the workforce can lead to people being excluded — because it’s already happening.

“How can organisations articulate what kind of culture they want to foster, when historically, organisational culture has been typically framed by the physical environment?” Asks Fellows. “With big tech company offices like Google, there’s a very clear theme of the culture they’re looking to nurture. That has just disappeared right now.”

“This shift was made out of necessity during a crisis, and does not necessarily provide a model for how remote working should be.”

On a purely practical level, many of the companies that have recently switched to at-home working have not done enough to ensure that all employees have the necessary skills and training to use all of this new technology. “That could be quite isolating, particularly where it might be related to characteristics like age or accessibility,” says Usiskin. In addition to competency issues, our working relationships are going to change when they are conducted primarily on these digital platforms.

“Our interactions are reduced, so I think the little things matter a bit more,” she says. “A microaggression that you might shrug off in the office, when that’s the only interaction you’re having that day, it feels bigger.” Equally seriously, when all work communications are digitally delivered, there is the potential for tone and nuance to be lost, or for comments to be misinterpreted. And then there are more overt forms of exclusion and bullying, like the practice of side-texting during a group call.

“I suspect we’ll see the rise of a whole new breed of microaggression and new behaviours,” says Usiskin. “The behavioural policies won’t have kept up, so we’re going to need to develop new practices.” She suggests outlining a set of ground rules at the start of a group call, and they can be as simple as “you don’t need to have your camera on, but please ensure you’re listening” or “please don’t text during the call.”

“How can organisations articulate what kind of culture they want to foster, when historically, organisational culture has been typically framed by the physical environment?”

It’s also possible that this reduced exposure to a wider variety of colleagues means unconscious biases may come into play. Anonymising our interactions to a degree is one way of minimising the risk of triggering these biases, Usiskin explains:

“A lot of these triggers come from what we see and hear, but if we’re seeing a bit less of people, and only seeing the quality of their work, that might be a good thing. I always advise my clients to turn off their cameras on a call. If we can’t see people, if we can’t see their background, we can’t make those judgments, so hopefully we won’t.”

Another, more encouraging scenario is that rather than entrenching biases at an organisational level, these new ways of working will actually broaden the pool of talent. “Historically, organisations have only been able to recruit within their local geography,” says Fellows. “That barrier is going to be removed, which will allow the talent pool to become much more global. Therefore people working in those organisations are potentially going to be exposed to people from other diversity demographics.”

“It’s also possible that this reduced exposure to a wider variety of colleagues means unconscious biases may come into play. I always advise my clients to turn off their cameras on a call. If we can’t see people, if we can’t see their background, we can’t make those judgments.”

Most importantly, as leaders begin to plan for the future, whether that be a return to the workplace or a shift to more long-term flexible working, they need to acknowledge that while we’re all living through the same period of uncertainty, each person’s lived experience will be different.

“Simply saying we’re all in this together is not OK,” says Usiskin, “and what I’d look for in an inclusive leader is someone who actually properly recognises that, and is not afraid to talk about it.”