remote work

Five Virtual Office Pitfalls to Avoid For Stronger Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

In the classic 80s movie Heathers, a popular clique—comprised of three teenage girls named Heather—let in a new member, Veronica, and sets about bullying her to conform to their norms or face returning to her prior status of a nobody. 

To the dismay of many managers, that’s what the traditional workplace felt like for many employees.

In almost every workplace, cliques create a perceived “in” group, leaving many employees wondering where—if anywhere—they belong. Louder voices speak over or silence their less assertive peers during meetings, depriving the team of valuable perspectives. And employees that need time away from the office to address personal and family needs may be seen as disengaged—and subsequently passed up for promotions.

It’s no wonder that women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people with disabilities are more likely to leave a company if it doesn’t offer hybrid work. Virtual and hybrid work arrangements can alleviate many of these issues and give all employees a more level playing field to work, collaborate, and achieve their professional goals. 

Of course, remote and hybrid workplaces face diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) challenges. But they aren’t that difficult to overcome—here’s how.

5 Common DEI Challenges and How to Overcome Them in the Virtual Office 

The good news is while remote and hybrid teams are not immune to the DEI challenges associated with in-person work, these challenges can be easier to overcome thanks to the innate characteristics of hybrid work. Let’s look at five of the most common DEI challenges associated with remote and hybrid work and how to overcome them. 

Relationships and Trust Are Harder to Build Virtually

When teams don’t trust each other, internal conflict is more likely. And unless you’ve been an online gamer for most of your life, it is harder to build relationships and earn trust with colleagues when you primarily engage through a screen. This is one area where workers from large companies with distributed workforces have an advantage—I had direct reports in Denver and Phoenix (and no travel budget) in the late 1990s, so it can be done even without the latest collaboration and communication tools.

Building trust in hybrid teams starts with communication. Managers need to set clear expectations about each person’s role and responsibilities. Provide a deadline to all team members for their contribution to a task or project. If someone is struggling, encourage them to be open about their challenge and have the team brainstorm solutions. Over time, this will help teams build trust as everyone demonstrates a shared commitment to helping the team succeed. 

To build relationships, start each meeting with a short icebreaker activity or ask everyone to share something about their personal life. This intentional sharing allows everyone to learn about each other and identify commonalities that can be the base of a relationship, regardless of their culture or background.

Networking and Mentorship Require Conscious Effort

There are often limited opportunities for networking and mentorship in the workplace—including virtual or in-person environments—which is especially harmful to underrepresented groups.

As Deloitte recommends, your team should establish cross-generational mentorship opportunities where seasoned professionals can mentor early career professionals. This enables newer professionals to learn more quickly about the company culture and gain an advocate to mentor them on their career progression. Encourage mentors to meet with their mentees at least once a month, and include a budget for in-person meetups when people live in the same city. 

In addition to mentorship, other ways to foster connection within your hybrid team include:

  • Host local meetups for employees that live near each other at least once a quarter.
  • Plan optional monthly virtual networking and team-building activities.
  • Coordinate “lunch and learn” sessions that spotlight team members and their knowledge or work.
  • Encourage employees to form Employee Resource Groups aligned with a shared purpose or identity.

Your Corporate HQ Design Can’t Provide Cues for the Company’s Culture

Many companies lean heavily on the design and decoration of their physical offices to telegraph their brand values. From having lots of collaboration space to projecting the values on the walls, many employees live the company culture daily through osmosis from being surrounded by it.

Without those visual cues, there is potential isolation and disconnect from the company culture. And these feelings can be amplified for remote workers based in different locations than the bulk of the team. 

That’s why you must actively shape your company culture. Positive company cultures will rally team members behind a shared mission and sense of togetherness, encouraging healthy dynamics and conflict resolution. On the other hand, toxic company cultures result in high turnover because employees lack direction and often face hostility or unfair working conditions.

To build the foundation for a healthy culture, start by hosting a virtual all-hands meeting to align your team and explain the reasoning behind your hybrid or remote workplace strategy. Reinforce your mission and values, and invite questions from team members. The goal of this meeting is for every employee to clearly understand your company’s purpose and how everyone can work together successfully.

Reinforce your culture by providing all current and future employees with company swag and materials that detail your culture and the qualities that team members should exemplify. From there, you need to reinforce those values in every meeting and through day-to-day work—managers should provide models that employees can emulate. 

Employees will feel connected with your company when they feel recognized. Regularly acknowledge their achievements in public channels and celebrate them on birthdays, holidays, and important milestones. 

It’s Easy to Misinterpret Virtual Tone and Body Language

Understanding a person’s tone or body language when messaging or speaking on a video call can be tricky. There is plenty of room for miscommunication, misunderstanding, and unconscious bias. For example, not everyone agrees that using a thumb’s up emoji is considered disrespectful, or that they aren’t engaged if they don’t have their camera on for a video meeting.

Setting virtual communication guidelines will reduce these types of misunderstandings. For starters, create an explainer illustrating how it can be easy to misinterpret tone and body language online. In it, provide examples of how your team can communicate in a respectful and healthy way.

For example, explain what emojis will mean at your company and when it is appropriate to use them. Reinforce how team members can communicate deadlines, such as what to do instead of saying that something “must be done ASAP” or using bold and capitalized words to convey importance. 

When a misunderstanding eventually arises, encourage employees to speak with their manager about the situation. Managers can help team members overcome their virtual communication challenges and stress the importance of patience and understanding. As a former marketing leader I worked for always said, it’s important to assume positive intent. But for that saying to become reality, it takes work on everyone’s part to earn each other’s trust.

Multiple Time Zones Create Scheduling Hurdles

Time zone and cultural differences can make coordinating meetings, collaboration, and work schedules challenging, leading to potential exclusion or marginalization of specific individuals or groups due to differences in working hours or cultural norms.

For teams that do not have significant time zone differences, it’s best to schedule meetings and events for times when everyone can join, which is often in the middle of the work day. But if your organization has a distributed workforce in various time zones, this simply may not be possible.

Before scheduling an event, conduct a poll that solicits the preferred time(s) to hold it. If you see one or two clear preferences, host two events, if possible, based on its goal. Even after taking this step, ensure that the preferred dates are not ones of cultural and religious significance or regional holidays that span your team’s geography.

Host social events and networking activities on different days and times to include people each time who could not attend the previous event. 

Despite the Challenges, Hybrid and Remote Work Deliver Some DEI Advantages

Overcoming the above five remote work DEI challenges becomes easier as you continue to prioritize employees as individuals and foster spaces where their voices are heard.

By building a healthy company culture that enables everyone to thrive, you’ll be on the fast track to enjoying some of the best benefits of remote and hybrid work, like access to a diverse talent pool that spans geographies and potentially reduced bias and discrimination in your hiring and promotions.

Most importantly, flexible work arrangements allow people to work from the comfort of their homes. This helps them work in a way that suits their needs and alleviates uncomfortable feelings or exclusion they potentially face in a traditional office setting. 

Often, one of the best solutions to improve your hybrid strategy is to hire someone dedicated to the task: a virtual office manager. Download our virtual office manager e-book to get started building a virtual office environment where everyone feels seen, heard, and valued.

Start building an inclusive virtual office

Download the free e-book
Start building an inclusive virtual office
Download the free e-book