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Prioritizing equity and justice in remote work

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

Co-authored by the Emergence Collective and Spring After Winter teams

So far, our team has written about how we’ve been using remote tools the past two years for our office and with our partners. We outlined the “how to’s” behind participatory virtual meetings in our third post. This is our fourth, our favorite, and arguably the most important post in our series about remote work culture.

Why? Because when your team is moving a million miles a minute with unusual and unpredictable stresses it can be easy to slip into conscious or unconscious practices that uphold deep-rooted and institutionalized oppression.

You’re reading this because you care about equity and want to learn how to participate in more justice-oriented remote environments. Maybe by now you’ve already chosen tech tools, implemented your emergency plan for virtual collaboration, and facilitated a few team meetings. Great! Now it’s time to thoughtfully consider what’s working, and where your organization’s practices can grow.

In this post we focus on general principles of inclusion in remote environments that help us avoid replicating power dynamics or reinforcing structural systems of prejudice.

The first step is to understand assumptions that we all hold and to be more cognizant of them. Here are four assumptions that our team has checked each other on in the past month:

  1. People have high-speed internet or access to a dedicated computer. In a non-pandemic world, businesses provide internet and computers. In a work-from-home world, people might only have one shared family computer or no home computer; some people might live in rural communities with limited bandwidth. Offer people multiple options, like a call in number, if you plan virtual meetings. If you’re a manager, consider paying your employees a utility stipend to ensure better internet access.

  2. Parents have access to reliable childcare. Access to reliable childcare is a privilege and can be elusive even in normal times. During the pandemic, it is common for parents to manage a full-time job and childcare. Help your parent colleagues by encouraging a more relaxed professional demeanor during virtual meetings and noting it is okay to step away for a moment if necessary. Parents can set expectations at the start of a meeting by mentioning the possibility of unavoidable noise and interruptions. Commit to more flexible scheduling centering parents’ needs.

  3. Internet is the ultimate equalizer and everyone will feel comfortable participating. Oof. Technology is certainly not immune to bias, because people have bias and people create technology. If you find yourself hosting or facilitating virtual events, some of our tips and tools are below.

  4. We can maintain the same kind of productivity we had pre-COVID. I’ll hold off on the productivity stump speech for another blog. Suffice it to say that the emotional fatigue of a global pandemic is a lot for your body and mind to process. Our team is working on being more gracious to ourselves, our colleagues who are parents, and shifting our expectations during this crisis.

The folks over at the Fakequity blog created a virtual meeting bingo that lays out more assumptions about and possible pitfalls of working remotely.

Let’s talk about facilitation.

A big part of being a facilitator in a remote environment is the same as being a strong and intentional facilitator in-person, but with some new tools to use.

As a facilitator, it is important to be aware of who is or is not talking. Do you notice any patterns? Are only folks of certain genders, racial identities, or levels of leadership within your organization speaking? If so, how can you encourage diverse and representative participation?

Be proactive from the very beginning so people are comfortable participating. When kicking off a meeting, instruct folks to introduce themselves, and then have them pick the next person to speak (always allow an option for people to pass/decline to share). For larger groups, ask people to introduce themselves in the chatbox.

Remember to slow down and not to rush. In smaller meetings, we designate one silent minute after certain questions for participants to individually reflect and write down ideas before jumping right into a discussion. In general, we’ve found people need longer pauses in virtual environments (tip: try counting to ten in your head after asking a question, even if the pause feels awkward).

Even when feeling urgency, it is important to take time for deliberation when making decisions on behalf of the group or more collaboratively with group members. It can be more difficult to chime in during a virtual meeting since the setting can inhibit many cues like body language and an ability to sense others’ desire to speak. Further, women and more introverted folks are often left out of decisions in meeting settings - virtual or in-person.

For example, after open discussion about an important topic, you might allow 30 seconds for reflection, and then have each member of the meeting share their thoughts round robin-style before making a decision or moving on to another part of the agenda.

Consider multiple styles of learning. Don’t rely on verbal processing only. You can support learners who connect through varying modalities (listening, reading, writing, speaking, etc.) by making use of the tools in Zoom we talked about in our last blog, like breakout rooms and polls. There are also great free and low-cost tools beyond Zoom, like Mentimeter, Slido, Miro, and Poll Everywhere, that will help your meetings be more interactive and ensure more widespread participation. For example, Slido enables participants to vote up and down ideas. Mentimeter and Poll Everywhere have a suite of poll questions beyond multiple choice, like ranking, scales, and 2x2 grids. These tools move away from the idea that we’re empty vessels to making meetings more engaging, collaborative, and inclusive.

If you’re presenting slides, make sure to describe the visuals and content for people with vision impairment or low vision, or who are joining by phone. Consider including image descriptions on slides and providing them in advance to enhance accessibility for participants who use screen readers. This also applies to poll results – don’t assume everyone is able to see the results; make sure to summarize them verbally. A simple presentation design with large, concise text will help your audience engage fully on large and and small screens.

Now, let’s talk about emotional fatigue.

People are going through a lot right now. Some folks have lost their jobs. Some folks are sick or have sick family members. Some are struggling with the lack of in-person connection. It’s important to assume our colleagues are doing the best they can under the circumstances by being flexible, accommodating, and compassionate.

If your meeting is longer than 45-60 minutes, be sure to provide folks with a 15-minute break.

During staff meetings or one-on-one meetings, carve out intentional space for people to check in. Some weeks we allow for unstructured time, other weeks we have prompts for people to respond to like the rose, thorn, and bud prompt. These types of check-ins improve engagement and inclusivity while allowing people to bring their whole selves to work.

This virus is exacerbating existing racial inequities in our country and surfacing more unconscious bias. Understanding this truth motivates us to conduct our work and collaborate in the service of equity.

We will have to do things differently in the context of a pandemic than we would previously. There undoubtedly will be things that we wish we would’ve done differently or better. There will also be changes we make now that we’ll want to maintain after COVID-19.

Again, most importantly, we want to do work that contributes to a more just world. If we can collaborate with those most affected by injustices or community challenges, if we can facilitate community using engaging and inclusive practices, then we can have more just, comprehensive, and longer lasting decisions with stronger home communities.

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