Effective Leadership: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusiveness During a Time of Crisis

April 17, 2020

Recently, ACEC-BC Project Leader Marcie Cochrane released a three part series on Effective Leadership: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusiveness (EDI) During a Time of Crisis.

In the series, Marcie provides tips from an EDI perspective on effectively leading teams through Communication, Structure, Productivity, Social Connection, and more!

Check out the full series below.

Introduction

COVID-19 is turning the world upside down, including how and where we work. The shift to working from home has been drastic and widespread. At some point in the future, organizations will have the opportunity to reflect on how this may change future business practices and policies. However, at the present, the focus is on how we support our employees to effectively work from home: providing the right supports and expectations during these exceptional times.

The need to work from home goes well beyond the economic imperatives. Members may be working on projects or providing services that are connected to the essential services that need to be maintained.  Members may also be working on new projects or services that tie directly to the increased demand for critical services ranging from manufacturing to data management to critical information communication. In addition, considering the reality of the mental health impacts of our situation, work can provide an opportunity for connection and purpose, which can be helpful as long as it’s not contributing to the stress and anxiety people may be experiencing.

Like many others at this time, I have been asking myself, as a member of ACEC-BC’s team, what I can do to support our members who are trying to best support their employees, co-workers, and, clients?

As someone who has worked from home for some time, I have a good understanding of what can be done by individuals and managers to make it work. As a professional whose work focuses on equity, diversity, and inclusion within the engineering sector, I have a good understanding of the different considerations that factor in to working from home for different people. As a mom of three young kids and a partner to someone who is an essential worker during this crisis, I am acutely aware of the difference between working from home during normal times and in the current circumstances.

With this perspective, I offer the following to help you support your team members working from home during this time. In particular, I’m offering guidance through an equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) perspective. 

When talking about EDI, I often share the perspective that every person has multiple lenses that layer together to make their own unique experience and interactions with the world. Lenses are different identity factors such as gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, race, religion, geography, education level, economic status, and others. During this crisis, we all still wear these lenses, but I would suggest that there are other lenses that will layer on for different individuals.

Some of these additional lenses connect to an individuals different circumstances related to working from home:

  1. Caring for children: anyone with children likely has them at home with them full time. Although daycares are still open at the present time, this may change at some point in the future.
  2. Supporting others: individuals may be supporting or caring for others, including elderly or immune compromised parents, family members, neighbours, or friends.
  3. Workspace: if working from home was not normal previously, individuals may not have dedicated office space or furniture. In addition, partners or roommates may also be working from home, crowding even those who have a dedicated office space.
  4. Supporting Partners: individuals with partners who are working in essential services and health care may be supporting these partners who are working tirelessly to do what is needed during these times.
  5. Other situations: there are many other scenarios and different combinations of these factors that our team members are dealing with, while working from home.

In addition to the above list, most of us are dealing with different levels of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty about the current and ever-changing situation we are living. 

To be honest, “showing up” for even a few hours of work a day is a challenge most of these days with all the other responsibilities I have to keep my family safe and supported. And when I do get the chance to work, my focus is not necessarily there.  Many of us are feeling this, as are our team members.

In times of crisis and economic pressure, diversity and inclusion can be de-prioritized. The impact of this is not just the immediate, but also the risk that decades worth of gains made towards equality in the workforce will be slow and inequitable in return. By considering how to manage and lead remote teams with EDI in mind, you mitigate these impacts and support your team members. Most of us understand the benefits of diversity on our team: enhanced innovation, effective problem solving, and improved collaboration. I think we can all agree that in the current environment, we need teams that are doing these things well.

Part 1 - Communication and Structure

Communication

The first, and most important aspect of effectively leading our remote teams is communication and openness. We all need to be able to be honest about our situation and ability to work from home. As a team leader, you can role model this by explaining to your team members what your expected availability is and share examples of how you and others are managing their individual situations. For example, you may explain how others are arranging their work schedules to accommodate shared child care responsibilities. It is important to ask your team members about their situation to understand what challenges they may be facing in their ability to perform their work. From there, defining constraints and expectations will ensure that both you and your team member have a mutual understanding of expectations.

Regardless of whether a team is remote or not, the leader is responsible for creating an inclusive team. Creating inclusive workplaces is about considering needs and experiences based on different identity factors, and in the current situation, consideration for individual lenses and circumstances is critical for inclusive leadership. When that team is remote, specific approaches should be considered that create a team environment where both individuals and leaders feel engaged and understand the expectations. Many of the points shared below may already be in place with your in-person teams. However, it is important to review and adapt what is already in place and fill in the gaps on any areas that may be missing.

By managing outward, you will maintain and strengthen the relationships with your team. Managing outward includes:

  • Regular check-ins: having regular check-in meetings with each team member is important as it provides the opportunity to review not only progress on work, but also to regularly check in on how each individual’s work from home situation is working.
  • Frequent communication: frequent communication ensures your team has the information and updates they need. The phrase “we are all in this together” applies to work; a fundamental way to demonstrate this is through open communication. Key aspects of frequent communication include:
  1. Assignment updates:Regularly providing updates and information is critical, especially as projects scope and ways of doing work, such as field work, change, etc.
  2. Schedules and arrangements:as appropriate, allow team members to share their own circumstances to make sure others understand what factors may be affecting response time, work hours, and other changes that impact the team’s working relationship.
  3. Updates for assurance:take away as much uncertainty as possible by sharing what you can about the steps your organization is taking.
  4. Team success stories:be vocal about success stories from other teams which would normally be shared through informal communication in the office.
  • Apply the same ideas to client relationships: communication and relationship building with clients is also important. Consider these same principles and how they should be applied to your client relationships. Discuss this with your team as well so that they understand any changes in approach.
  • Ask for feedback: leading and working on a remote team takes adjustment. Make sure your team knows this and that they can provide feedback on what is and what is not working and that you are all learning together.

Structure

Norms and expected behaviours can help provide your team with structure that can provide confidence and reassurance to support working from home.

  • Re-visit your Team Charter: your team may already have a team charter or other guiding principles; remind your team of these if they exist. Consider whether there are adjustment or changes that should be made to adapt to the current environment.
  • Develop guiding principles: if your team does not have a charter or guiding principles, consider developing these to reflect the current work environment. Normally these activities can require a significant time investment. However, there are templates available that can offer a reasonable solution with limited time investment.
  • Ensure clear expectations: make sure your team understands what the expectations are during this period. Differences may include:
    • Core hours and different shifts to address technology use constraints as well as individual circumstances.
    • Communication expectations in terms of how to reach people – phone numbers, preference to use email, chat channels, etc.
    • Not all team members will be aware of data privacy and security requirements, so it is important to explain what communication tools and apps are not acceptable.
    • Agreement to community building actions to support collaboration and socializing. These tend to occur organically when in-person, but when working remotely, we need to make time for social connection, which will benefit team resilience and productivity.
Part 2 - Ownership and Accountability

Ownership

Ownership empowers team members to make decisions and solve their own problems. To do this, leaders need to:

  • Focus on common goals: remind everyone of common goals and how they contribute to those goals.
  • Outline and/or review limits of authority: ensure individuals are clear about what decisions they can make independently and when they need to seek approval. This may not change from already established norms, but there may be adjustments required.
  • Set your team up for success with appropriate resources: this may be determined by organizational constraints, but as much as possible, giving teams the right tools to easily connect and collaborate as well as access to necessary resources will enable them to make decisions and solve problems.
  • Model best practices to demonstrate new norms: make use of technology and communication tools (chat and video) as well as behaviours such as setting limits of work hours (it may be easier to fall into the scenario of working at all hours/days when you have your office at home).

Empower individuals to solve problems: guide team members to solve their own problems and make their own decisions (as appropriate). Over time team members will become more confident and need less guidance. The stress of the current situation can cause some to be less confident decision makers, so don’t be surprised if some team members seem to need more guidance at the start of this transition.

Accountability

Accountability allows you and your team members to understand expectations and manage performance. Even if your team has well established accountability understanding, revisiting these when your team environment has changed is critical to reinforce and adapt as necessary.

  • Help your team members to set clear, measurable goals. Review existing tasks and adjust (if necessary) for changes in work assignments or work roles. Help establish priority of these goals.
  • Consider work assignment goals but don’t forget about personal development goals. In person professional development events may have been cancelled or postponed, but you can still encourage team members to seek new professional development opportunities online.
  • Hold team members responsible for their behaviour and work. To function as a team, we need to rely on each other to deliver on our tasks and assignments and to approach our work with an appropriate attitude.

As explained in Part 1 of this series, have regular check-ins with everyone on your team to review tasks and progress, holding team members accountable for their work.

Part 3 – Productivity & Social Connection

Productivity

For you and your team, there are some personal management actions that can help with productivity and focus while working from home.

  • Avoid multi-tasking. Video conferences are better than teleconference for this. When at work, focus on work and at the end of your day, shut down your work and disconnect.
  • Take breaks. It can be easy to fall into the routine of working non-stop at home, including eating lunch at your desk. However, breaks can help with productivity and focus.
  • Set a schedule for yourself. Be flexible if you need to adjust but having a set routine can be helpful. Setting this schedule can also help you and others in your home manage different priorities and needs such as shared child care or office space.
  • Be compassionate with yourself and others.Above everything else, right now we all need kindness and support.  This includes making time to ask others how they are doing and being understanding when challenges arise.

Social Connection

Under normal circumstances, isolation is one challenge of remote work. During these times, it is even more of a challenge. Opportunities for social connection are limited in all areas of our lives, not just work. The importance of creating social connection with your team should not be overlooked.

Social connection and relationships are important at the best of times, but right now they are critical. Virtual work environments tend to have less opportunity for this because of the absence of informal water cooler conversations and spontaneous collaboration that occur when teams are physically together. Isolation leads to disengagement and lower job performance. This change in connection is happening at a time when distraction is high.

The advantage you and your team have is that you already know each other and have developed a level of trust and connection. As a leader, your task is to lead the way with new team norms that encourage collaboration and socializing. Ways to put this into action include:

  • Use video conferencing as the norm, if possible. Face to face can make a big difference in terms of increasing engagement and participation.
  • As much as possible, ensure that your team has adequate tools to support team collaboration, including video conferencing, chat, and screen/document sharing.
  • Allocate time at the beginning or end of team meetings for socialization.
  • Use ice breakers at team meetings. This can be as simple as coming up with more interesting questions than the usual “how was your weekend?” There are lots of ideas online if you are struggling to find appropriate questions or ice breaker ideas.
  • Set up a social area in your online chat tool to allow team members to share things such as virtual office photos, GIFs, and anything else that provides a positive break for a few minutes.
  • Ask your team for ideas on what they would like to do to remain connected.
  • Model the way by actively participating and engaging in these actions. 

Unprecedented is perhaps an understated word to use when describing the situation we are facing right now, including the new challenge of leading remote teams amidst the uncertainty and constant change all around us. Our teams need us, as leaders, to provide a face of compassion and hope, leading the way forward. For those who can do this effectively to support their teams collectively and as individuals, the benefits will endure beyond the current crisis we face. Finally, make sure your team members are aware of the different resources and programs available to them for support. Your Human Resources team should be able to help with the details and communication of this information.

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