Inclusivity in the virtual workplace

Written by Charlotte Caimino, Eszter Porter and Stephanie Pearson.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown us all into unchartered territory in both our professional and personal lives. Those of us who are used to working in an office environment will certainly feel the impact of suddenly having to adjust to working from home. Our day to day life involves sharing offices with multi-national PhD students and research assistants in a variety of multi-disciplinary teams. We almost took for granted the fact that we could share advice and experiences with each other without having to get up from our chairs.

For many of us, this means embracing the technology we seldom use and relying on it for our day to day work and social activities. This brings with it a host of difficulties, particularly for those who may have barriers to effective communication online such as a having English as a second language, or hearing or visual impairments. For example, those who rely on lip reading or experience tinnitus may find this new way of working quite daunting. We feel it’s also important to keep in mind that the individual circumstances of some people will bring unique challenges, such as juggling work, clinical roles they may hold and parenting or caring for others. This can add further barriers to effective communication in this new virtual world.

Now more than ever, we need to be socially and technologically aware of these new challenges in the virtual workplace. It is essential that we learn how to communicate effectively in our teams, to ensure all team members are fully included and feel they have the means to make valued contributions.

We also want to emphasise that, although we may use telecommunication for work purposes, such as meetings, we encourage you to utilise it for socialising too. For many of us who work in shared offices or are used to having our lunches with colleagues, it can be unsettling having to now spend your working day without that routine interaction. Incorporating regular scheduled social ‘coffee breaks’ into your day with people virtually popping in and out of a video conference for a chat, can really boost productivity and give a sense of normality to the working day.

Social isolation and working from home can be anxiety inducing for a lot of people as it is a new way of working that most of us are unaccustomed to, and it is not always clear on how to use the technology effectively. For people with hearing or visual impairments, this anxiety can be heightened further. As we are learning this new type of communication together, it’s important to be transparent and honest about the challenges we as a group and each of us individually may face.

People with language barriers, hearing or visual impairments may find themselves socialising or contributing less due to the additional difficulties this new virtual world offers. Although we may spend our days physically away from our teams, we can use technology to keep up morale. We like to consider ourselves as physically isolated, not socially.

Finally, we need to be mindful of other aspects of peoples’ personal lives that might affect their work. Health concerns, family or financial worries, or going through bereavement might not be as transparent in virtual meet-ups. 

With this in mind, we have put together some tips which we have found effective in our own team of PhD students and research assistants, to maintain the feeling of community and productivity, in the hopes that it may help others during this unfamiliar time.

Professor Sarah Sharples, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, says: “The rapid move towards home working has presented many challenges for inclusion. It is very easy to assume that what works for us also works for others, but now, more than ever, it is important to regularly reflect on our own approaches to informal and formal communication, and provide others with an opportunity to suggest different ways of working to make sure that all are able to participate fully.” 

About the authors: Charlotte, Eszter and Stephanie work in Hearing Sciences at the University of Nottingham. Charlotte comes from a Psychology background, Eszter has a Masters in Neuroimaging and they are currently Research Assistants. Stephanie has a Masters in Oncology and is currently doing a PhD. They have adjacent offices and frequently have coffee breaks together, bonding over cake and biscuits.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

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