How to continue building inclusive communities when you’re remote

Team Asana contributor imageTeam Asana
May 13th, 2020
8 min read
How to continue building inclusive communities when you’re remote article banner image

The recent shift to remote work and physical distancing has forced many organizations, including Asana, to rethink how they connect and communicate as a distributed team. Building inclusive communities must be a part of that shift. Being fully remote—compounded by living through a global pandemic—makes it even more critical to be intentional about creating an inclusive community.

It can be easy to assume that the inclusive practices we’ve built into our organizations will transfer one-to-one to a remote work environment. On the surface, going 100% remote may seem like it’s leveling the playing field for all employees. However, it’s actually much more likely that certain groups—like parents and underrepresented minorities—are disproportionately affected by the additional barriers of working from home and navigating the global crisis. 

At Asana, we’ve used this opportunity to create spaces for our employees to show up in the ways that work for them, and building community together to remain connected and supported no matter where they are. 

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As we enter a world of working remotely full-time, we lose some precious, sporadic moments throughout the day—bouncing new ideas off your neighbor, cracking jokes with the person who sits behind you, winding down together on Fridays. Thinking proactively now about inclusion is more important than ever.”
Grace Lee, Professional Services

What does an inclusive community look like? 

Diversity and inclusion requires a “team of everyone” approach. It’s about ensuring that everyone knows that they have a role to play in building a diverse team and creating an inclusive environment. This approach takes the work off of the groups that tend to be underrepresented and makes it a shared responsibility.

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I believe that inclusivity is at the core of my role as Customer Success Manager for Asana. It means that I need to have a connection with our global teams and advocate on behalf of my customers—all Asanas.”
Terri Burden, Customer Success

An inclusive community is one where every single person feels that they can have and share their own unique perspective. Inclusive communities embody awareness of how people deal with different things that may impact how they work and show up to work. This includes openness to different communication styles and needs, and trust in one another that they can be themselves without judgment or repercussions. 

When you’ve created an inclusive community in your organization, you’re meeting people where they are and allowing them to be authentic. For instance, a single parent may now have different work-life responsibilities to balance while working remotely. By fostering an inclusive environment, that person will feel safe sharing with their manager how these responsibilities may be impacting their work. This openness ultimately allows employees to do their best work and managers to better coordinate work across their teams to support them.

First things first: You’ve got to build trust

Establishing trust between yourself and individuals on your team is so important—it’s the foundation on which all of your inclusive practices live. A critical component of building trust is creating space for people to express themselves, where they can be vulnerable and show up as they need to.

At Asana, we’ve been encouraging managers to have these kinds of open conversations with their teams. As soon as we went fully remote, we created a guide with best remote management practices, along with a framework for having open conversations. We reiterated to managers through internal communications and manager town hall meetings that this framework should absolutely guide their conversations, which normalized the framework and kept it top of mind. 

In the framework we use at Asana, a guiding principle is: don’t make assumptions for anyone’s situation. Some people can appear that they don’t have other demands on their time, or that they are able to brush things off and not let things affect them. Being direct and having conversations with every single member of your team is the only way to mitigate any assumptions you may have. Then, when you have those conversations, collaborate on solutions and empower team members to bring them forward. This helps to create a space where everyone can trust each other and thrive. 

In a remote setting, we don’t get nearly as many cues as to how someone is truly showing up to a conversation. Think about how a manager may typically go into a one-on-one to establish trust with their direct reports: they may close their laptop, physically lean into the conversation, and keep their arms uncrossed. All those nonverbal cues are now gone. To build trust while managing remote employees, we have to be much more intentional with our communication. Here are a few ways you can create space and build trust with your team: 

  1. Contract how your remote teamwork will look: The team norms you have in person may not be best for remote work. We have to have open, direct conversations with each other about our boundaries, how we prefer to communicate, and ultimately, how we will all work together. That’s going to look different for each person, which is why it’s critical to have the conversation upfront. What are the SLAs for certain types of requests? What hours will you be offline? What do you have going on at home that may impact your response time or ability to take meetings at certain hours of the day? Having the answers to these questions helps teams create inclusive team norms. If one person knows that another person takes care of their children in the morning, they can recommend that the team have meetings in the afternoon. These little things add up, and it all starts with establishing that contract upfront.

  2. Set an example—be vulnerable: People will have trouble being open with you if you aren’t vulnerable with them too. This is especially important for majority groups to create a trusting space for others to share information about themselves. By setting an example, you are showing someone that it’s OK to have these conversations, and it’s safe to express these things openly. Share your struggles, the things you have going on that impact how you show up to work. Then ask them to share theirs. 

  3. Incorporate check-ins: Status updates are important, but are you getting a status update on your people? Casual, non-work-related check-ins help create space for people to share what’s on their mind, and bring back the feeling of in-office conversations that typically happen more organically. Send personal messages to the people you work with to randomly check up on them and see how they’re doing. At the start of a one-on-one, hold some time to talk openly, before jumping into anything business-related. You can also schedule check-in meetings with individuals every few weeks just to ask what’s going on in their life, and how they are holding up, no asks or business talk included. It will go a long way in empowering that person to feel confident showing up as they need to, and trusting that you will understand where they are coming from. 

Pay attention to groups who are disproportionately affected by being remote

Another key to building an inclusive team is recognizing that not everyone may feel safe to speak up. It’s important to check in with everyone on your team to ensure that they feel comfortable voicing when something—anything—is affecting how they show up to work and preventing them from being authentic in the workplace. Some groups that can be disproportionately affected include: 

  • Underrepresented minorities: Feeling confident and expressing yourself openly is challenging enough when you’re the only person in a room that looks like you. Imagine what that’s like in a remote setting. Therefore it’s important to provide alternative ways for anyone to speak up and share their perspectives, not only on a video call, but before or after a meeting. Proactively engage with everyone on your team and ask for their opinions, acknowledge that you hear them, and include them in group decisions.

  • Parents: Working from home when schools are closed and childcare is limited means parents have unique factors affecting their ability to focus and be productive during this time. We need to be real with parents on our team about what we can reasonably expect from one another. Do they need to shift their working hours? On days that are particularly challenging for them, can they speak up safely? Having open conversations with parents and the rest of your team about how you’re all contracting to work together will help this group feel confident in their work and their place on the team.

  • Team members in different time zones: Even if the majority of your team is located in a single country, don’t forget to check in with your collaborators around the world. Your start to the day may be their end to the day. Ask those employees what meeting times work for them and why. Some people may thrive on end-of-day meetings, and others may be exhausted and not engaged. Make sure you understand how your entire team is showing up to meetings and make adjustments to ensure the time is effective for everyone. Asana can be helpful to follow through on inclusion efforts—all meeting parties can have visibility into what goes on in the meeting and related work so that no one misses out if they can’t attend.

  • New hires: It’s critical that new hires are set up for success from day one with your team or organization. Remote settings can make it hard to figure out social and communication norms, so make sure to review these with your new hires, and assign them a buddy to help continue to provide workplace context and touchpoints. 

Inclusion Zoom meeting
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As a new employee, in a new normal, where more and more people are unemployed, the most important thing to me has been keeping my job. With that in mind, I want to be seen, heard, and validated. When I started, I was eager to show my worth. Asana’s ERGs have provided a space for me to learn, to see, and to be seen as an individual and as an employee. I’m so, so thankful!”
Sebastian Gibson, Customer Success

Learn about the communities that exist within your company, and help your team find them

In person, it is natural for friendships to form through cross-functional work with your own teammates and through building relationships with people who have the same identity markers as you. Being remote can make people feel isolated from those opportunities to connect. 

The company is a community of all your employees, connected by mission and values, and then within the company are many smaller communities. Those smaller communities are formed either top-down, such as your immediate team or Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), or organically by employees, like lunches and online chat channels. As leaders, it’s important for us to know what these communities are and how employees can engage with them. It’s our responsibility to ensure the success of our teams, which includes keeping them connected.

At Asana, we have thriving offline communities that connect through social engagement, volunteering, recruiting events, real talk events, office parties, and more. We’ve made a concerted effort to move these activities to virtual settings, and also meet people where they are. These communities include: 

  1. Employee Resource Groups: ERGs support various communities and allies to create a safe and positive space. At Asana, ERGs are a large part of our culture, with over half of our employee base belonging to one or more. Our ERGs have doubled down on building ways to connect virtually and welcome new people. Nearly every week, one of our ERGs hosts a virtual event that creates a space for people to safely express themselves and have real talk about their experience. From casual lunches, to discussions on current events, to movie screenings, to game nights, we’ve seen increased engagement from our global employee base through these activities.

Inclusion Slack screenshot
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As a new employee, in a new normal, where more and more people are unemployed, the most important thing to me has been keeping my job. With that in mind, I want to be seen, heard, and validated. When I started, I was eager to show my worth. Asana’s ERGs have provided a space for me to learn, to see, and to be seen as an individual and as an employee. I’m so, so thankful!””
Laura Draper, Asana Women Co-Lead, Marketing

Our ERGs are also staying connected throughout the day with daily discussion topics and polls, or virtual whiteboards where people contribute inspiring quotes and thoughts. We’ve made our ERG communities an even larger focus of our remote employee onboarding program so that employees who identify with one of these communities have an easy and direct path to getting involved and meeting new people.

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These past two months have been challenging, particularly with the cancellation of pride events around the world, including here in Dublin. I’m very grateful for my local Team Rainbow group and the determination we have shown to keep supporting each other and the LGBTQ community.”
Tadgh Dolan, User Operations
  1. Online internal communities: You may see an uptick in online Slack communities as more and more people discover the ones that align with them and feel safe to plug in. A great example at Asana is our Parents channel. During our first week of remote work, a viral tweet inspired a conversation to replace your child’s name with the word “coworker” and talk about what they’ve done. It was such an organic and lighthearted way of coming together and sharing in an experience, and a reminder that we are all facing the same challenges. That’s community—a space for sharing and supporting others through shared experience.

Take your kid to work day, meeting screenshot
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There’s a wonderful parent community at Asana that offers support, council, resources, and a shoulder. The thing that makes me feel most supported is the company’s “bring your whole self to work” principle. It’s what makes the parent community so valuable, and that my schedule can get weird—I can say that I’m being affected by my family, I could use support or space—and I feel supported as who I am.”
Beth Toland, Product

  1. New employee engagement programs: In an effort to keep employees engaged and connected, you might even spin up new programs in response to employees’ needs. Our ERG Team Rainbow hosted a virtual Hollywood Squares game including members of our executive team in a lighthearted hour of trivia, open to anyone at the company to drop in and watch.

Hollywood Squares game, meeting screenshot

We’ve also adjusted some of our planned programming to make space for people to share their feelings. Early on as news about the pandemic unfolded, we hosted an open discussion on how COVID-19 was disproportionately impacting Asian communities in terms of racism, and black and brown communities in terms of positive testing and mortality rates. Our ERGs have come together to acknowledge Mental Health Awareness Month with a cross-ERG mental health lunch, weekly meditation, and workshops with mental health organizations. Having a balance of delight and real talk meets employees where they’re at on any given day, allowing them to take part in what they need most.

Practicing inclusion for the long haul

While it’s more important than ever to build inclusion into your organization, these are practices that you can take with you as you return to the office and through whatever comes next. Empowering people to be real about the things that are impacting how they show up, and enabling them to build human connection, ties right back to work. With authenticity comes confidence and acceptance, and that allows people to do their best work and thrive.

Learn more about Diversity & Inclusion at Asana.

Special thanks to Grace Lee, Terri Burden, Sebastian Gibson, Laura Draper, Beth Toland, Tadgh Dolan

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