Why Inclusive Collaboration Is the Answer to a Company's Most Existential Threats Companies can make real progress addressing deep-seated DEI issues by consciously building inclusive collaboration into the entire business.
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Companies are caught with massive talent challenges. They must improve their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs to get the best possible talent, improve their decision making and meet customer expectations. Yet historically-low unemployment has left little talent available for open positions. Worse yet, particularly in the tech industry, years of DEI initiatives have largely failed. Add to that the challenges of remote and hybrid work, and HR and IT teams have a headache.
Yet they should not despair. Companies can make real progress addressing deep-seated DEI issues — and get more innovation and productivity out of their workforce — by consciously building inclusive collaboration into the entire business.
But what does "inclusive collaboration" mean? It means leveling out the opportunities to contribute and add perspective to a project, regardless of rank in the organization. We have all been in exclusive "collaboration" sessions that we could scarcely call collaboration. Too often, whoever holds the marker at the whiteboard during the meeting does all the talking. This mentality favors the loudest (often male) voices in the room and lets the most senior people in the room control the conversation.
That type of collaboration does not inspire the best ideas and productivity; it certainly doesn't inspire inclusion. Ultimately, making collaboration inclusive is about making sure everyone can lend their considerable talents to the parts of a project they know best. It is essential for producing the best collaboration and innovation. Moreover, it is essential for creating a diverse workforce that data shows companies need to perform their best.
The benefits of inclusive collaboration
Making collaboration inclusive has a plethora of benefits. First, it can succeed where other DEI efforts are insufficient. Inclusivity of input, particularly for those at the junior level, is a lasting way to achieve inclusivity of race, gender and religion. If we encourage junior team members to really collaborate on a project and to add not just their work but their ideas and insights based on their work and life experiences, they can shine. Then they'll move up the corporate ladder and be in a position to make their companies appeal to other diverse candidates. The process will take years. Yet it will be organic, and it will create a virtuous cycle. That will make it succeed.
Further, inclusive collaboration will help with retention. Simply put, employees want to work where they're valued. They want to work in an organization where leaders actively seek their input and ideas. When people feel like they are seen, they are less likely to leave, and, as the last few months have shown, that would be a major relief to HR departments. The recruitment and hiring process is more expensive and time-intensive than retention.
Inclusion means making sure even your most junior team members are encouraged to contribute. It means recognizing that personal experience is an asset to be utilized, not a hurdle to overcome. It also means including both creative big thinkers and technical problem solvers and having them recognize each other's value.
Inclusion must be embedded in every aspect of your organization, from how your meetings are structured to what technology you use to project manage and create. Culture is critical: people's default response must be to let others in.
Adopting inclusive collaboration
If inclusive collaboration is a boon for companies, then adoption strategies are critical. While specifics depend on the industry and existing company culture, the crux of any strategy should be inclusive technology and practices that empower people to have open dialogues and to work on separate pieces of a project at the same time.
Some inclusive practices are universal: One-way meetings where the "boss" addresses the minions should be rare. Instead, be thoughtful about how meeting attendees can participate. Similarly, just asking "Does anyone have feedback?" when their boss is in the room will get a couple of hand raises from the team extroverts, if any feedback at all. Rather, meetings should have agenda items where everyone is encouraged to speak up.
Increasingly, both the hybrid environment and inclusive collaboration will require asynchronous collaboration that is allowing people to work on different pieces of a project and provide feedback on their own time, outside of a meeting setting. Introverts and junior team members need space to provide well-thought-out feedback or make suggested improvements to a project. Most will feel uncomfortable if they know their boss is watching.
Finally, bosses should rethink how they encourage team members. They do not need to throw a parade for every success. Still, they should find ways to say "Thank you," and "Good job." Something as simple as a thumbs up in a chat or a smile next to feedback on a digital whiteboard can mean the world to someone who isn't sure they belong.
Ultimately, company culture, particularly among senior leadership, will determine whether inclusive collaboration takes hold. While this may be unpopular at first, senior staff need to understand that at times they may need to take a step back from the conversation and create room for others to lead. This means not jumping in first and inviting others to take the lead; it means recognizing people with talent and expertise and encouraging them to provide perspective.
It means C-suiters will need to hand over the whiteboard marker.
It is a strange time to be a C-Suite executive. Companies are making record profits, yet they face countless existential threats. From the Great Resignation to employee burnout to year three of Covid-related restrictions, executives see troubles all across the horizon. Yet right now is the best time to address these issues.
Organizations have the money to institute progressive processes and technologies that make work fun. They should. The opportunity exists, the tools exist and there are enormous gains to be had.