Inclusive Leadership in a Digital-First Workplace

How to foster a culture of collaboration and engagement within your hybrid team

February 19, 2021 | By Kelsey Harris
Inclusive leader facilitating virtual meeting with her remote team.

The rapid transition to remote work – especially during a global pandemic – wasn't easy. Over the past year, organizations across all industries have shown immense resilience, successfully pivoting their workflows and workforce into a digital-first environment.

While this digital transformation was critical for growth and stability, it also created challenges and opportunities for making remote work more diverse and inclusive.

From embracing new and unfamiliar technologies to balancing job responsibilities while caring for children, elders, or relatives, this new virtual world has impacted generations, genders, and ethnic groups in different – and often inequitable – ways.

While organizations must take the initial step to continue to strengthen their diversity and build inclusive cultures, research has found that a leader's behavior has a direct link to an employee's experience of inclusion.

Effective and inclusive leadership in a virtual workplace takes self-awareness, vulnerability, empathy, and often – agility. When these leadership skills and behaviors are applied effectively, inclusive teams routinely make better decisions and more quickly achieve better results.

Here are three ways you can embrace accelerating change and lead your hybrid team with inclusivity.

Recognize and challenge your implicit biases

When you take on the role and responsibility of leading a team, you're charged with fostering a culture of collaboration, engagement, and growth while leveraging the differences of your employees. As individuals, we all have implicit biases – influenced by our environments, experiences, and those around us – that lead us to form unconscious judgments about others.

Further, research shows that when we're stressed, we often default to mental shortcuts and gut instincts, rather than making deliberate and goal-oriented decisions. Thus, potentially perpetuating inequalities in the virtual workplace and reinforcing the phenomenon of homophily, or the tendency to seek out those similar to yourself. If left uncurbed, the effects of unconscious biases can be detrimental to remote teams, causing corrosion of relationships and impacting your capacity as a leader, compelling you to make choices outside of The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) mandates, company values, established best practices, or general ethics.

"As a leader, it is vital to routinely assess your team and look for opportunities to transform dynamics," says Sonia Alvarez-Robinson, executive director at Georgia Tech Strategic Consulting and the host of the Georgia Tech Organizational Effectiveness Conference. "Think about everyone on your team. Do you hear ideas from each of them regularly? When in meetings, are there voices that get overrun? Very often, things that create discord are subtle nuances that can easily be missed."

Leaders should be intentional about leveraging the varied strengths and talents of all their employees. To combat implicit biases, Harvard Business Review suggests making a list of the current core and extended team members, with their photos, and keep it in front of you while you're working each day to help you make more conscious decisions about allocating responsibilities and information.

In doing so, inclusive team leaders can create a deliberate space that values differences, ensures all voices are heard, and harnesses the power of diverse perspectives.

Create a strong sense of belonging

When people feel like they belong at work, they are more productive, motivated, and more likely to contribute to their fullest potential, according to research from BetterUp.

Being physically separated from colleagues can impact team communication, and over time, stifle opportunities for engagement, impede diverse perspectives, and perpetuate systemic inequalities. By taking extra steps to make your remote team feel valued, connected, and respected, you are creating psychological safety while improving morale, motivation, productivity, and retention.

An inclusive workplace is one in which employees feel safe, comfortable, and respected. "It's about establishing those relationships within your organization and establishing that sense of, 'Yes, I belong there. I matter,'" notes Sonia Garcia, senior director of Access and Inclusions at Texas A&M's College of Engineering. Without the blanket of inclusivity, there is no opportunity for equity.

On a peer-to-peer level, establishing more opportunities for coworkers to check in with one another will help to make inclusivity tangible and allow teammates to feel seen and connected, regardless of their backgrounds. One easy way to do this is to create a virtual water cooler – such as a group chat on Microsoft Teams – for colleagues to share resources, tips, life hacks, words of encouragement, or non-work-related chatter.

In addition to virtual connections among distributed colleagues, it's also important as an inclusive leader to develop individual personal relationships to foster a culture of open dialogue and mutual respect. According to a study by Gallup, employees who meet with their managers regularly are three times more likely to be engaged than those who don't.

To ensure these valuable conversations routinely take place, establish a standing weekly or biweekly check-in and take advantage of audio and visual technology to mimic face-to-face interactions. Leave time at the beginning or end of the meeting to connect socially and listen for any challenges, feelings of isolation, or privacy concerns while proactively sourcing or empowering team members to crowdsource solutions.

Enhance your communication skills and approach

For leaders, communication isn't just part of the job – it is the job. Studies from McKinsey Global Institute have found that leaders spend about 80% of their workdays communicating, and even more so in a virtual setting.

As an inclusive leader, it's important to remember that the perspectives and communication styles of your remote team may be different from your own.

Take the time to think about the varying viewpoints and backgrounds of your team members, and adapt your communication skills and approach according to their interests and demographic makeup.

For example, using "guys" to address a multi-gendered team could insinuate that men are the preferred gender at the organization. Instead, use gender-inclusive alternatives, such as "team" or "colleagues."

Additionally, your actions will speak louder than your words. Interactions aren't just limited to verbal or written communication, your visual behaviors, such as posture, facial expressions, or eye contact, are also an effective component of your communication style.

"Whether listening attentively when another person is voicing their point of view or preventing miscommunication by double-checking tone, inclusive leaders must be skilled at delivering authentic, clear, and supportive messages to build trust and credibility with their remote team," says Nisha Botchwey, assistant dean of academic programs, Georgia Tech Professional Education.

The future of work requires inclusion

While cultivating and managing an inclusive workforce was already a major challenge across industries, the Covid-19 pandemic elevated systemic racial and economic inequities while disrupting the professional workforce. The uprising for racial justice has amplified the need for organizations to reassess priorities, values, and dynamics – confirming that previous, more passive strategies have not been effective.

To create a workplace where every employee feels included, leaders must embrace these changes and take action now. These approaches will be crucial, not only to help hybrid teams build new habits and social connections, but also to allow for a more cohesive and inclusive culture better equipped for an equitable society and the future of work.


Writer: Kelsey Harris
Editor: Shannon Helton-Amos
Digital Producer: Kelsey Harris