DEI Work Is More Important Than Ever. But How Do We Do It Remotely?

Jun 22, 2020

Widespread protests, sparked by the killings of Black people at the hands of police, have led to a global conversation on racial discrimimination. Many companies have shown their support through blast emails and social media posts. But how can they go from words to actions and meaningfully foster diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) after many rapidly converted to operating remotely due to COVID-19?

DEI is especially important for education organizations due to their work with learners of all backgrounds. Students need to feel valued and affirmed, and educators and others whose work impacts them should espouse those values by exploring and honoring differences.

“All organizations in the education sector need to be focused on equity and serving all students, especially those furthest from opportunities,” said my colleague Stephen Pham, director of organization learning at The Learning Accelerator. “We throw around the equity term all of the time. We need to walk the walk.”

One resource is the Remote DEI Toolkit, which was developed by a group of seven remote educational organizations to support DEI work without having a centralized physical office.The community of practice launched in fall 2019, before the COVID-19 outbreak.

The toolkit could not be timelier. The organizations approached DEI by identifying practices that allow for sharing vulnerability and establishing trust among remote colleagues. The toolkit grew from there to cover specific organizational practices, such as ensuring equity in hiring. It also focuses on developing internal capabilities of staff members so that these can be translated into their work with educators and students.

Pham described the toolkit as a living resource that will continue to grow over time. There is still work to be done, he added, noting that it does not yet include resources for topics like compensation.

Kristen Vogt, knowledge management officer at Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), one of the education nonprofit partners behind the toolkit, said “it helps us do our work better. Designing for equity is a key design principle we set for our programs and our organization.”

“If we’re not doing the work, we can’t ask our network to do the work,” Vogt adds “We wouldn’t know how to design for equity if we aren’t working towards equity ourselves.”

For Lavada Berger, a partner at Transcend, a non-profit education research and design organization, DEI is personal. “I want to work at a place where I can be myself. There are so many elements of anti-blackness in this world. As a Black woman, I want to work at a place where my humanness is seen, respected and valued. That requires us to do DEI work and be explicit about anti-racism.”

DEI Challenges in Remote Work

Remote DEI work is not without its challenges. Among them:

Building relationships and trust. DEI depends on strong relationships, vulnerability and trust, which can be hard to foster in remote environments with fewer organic relationship-building opportunities like water cooler chats. As Berger of Transcend explained: “Communication is either on video or on Slack and email. You choose how much tone and context you want to include. There is a lot of potential for conflict or misunderstanding because that context isn’t always included. Not having those opportunities to build relationships can exacerbate those conflicts.”

Navigating conflict. Working remotely can result in significantly fewer touchpoints than working in an office setting, with interactions limited to scheduled meetings. This can result in a prioritization of harmony and avoidance of difficult conversations which are needed to address microaggressions and unconscious bias.

Hiring, recruiting, and onboarding. In all areas of recruiting for talent, biases can show up. Often, in hiring, the type of people that remote organizations tend to recruit are those who have a dedicated workspace, those who have high-speed internet, and those who are able to troubleshoot technology.

Optimizing organizational culture. A remote environment can negatively affect organizational culture. For example, it can lend itself to working more independently and less collaboratively, which can lead to a competitive atmosphere. The remote environment can also reward those who are more strongly connected, leading to an unfair distribution of responsibilities.

Berger noted the double-edged nature of remote work: “On the one hand, I’m in my home. You’re comfortable at home and you can be your authentic self. This is your authentic space and it gives you a bit more room to show up as you are. In other ways, it can feel more performative because you’re on video. People only see a box of you. You can have a virtual performance.”

Advice for Organizations Thrust into Remote Work

So what should organizations recently converted into remote organizations do? Here are some thoughts from the collective:

Connect DEI to your organization’s purpose. Berger suggested revisiting why you exist as an organization, and be able to clearly articulate why DEI is fundamental to accomplishing that mission. “Get clear on what you mean,” Berger advised. “Do you want diversity across multiple aspects or people of color? The actual vocabulary of these words matters in how they actually show up in the organization.”

Listen to your employees. Pham encouraged organizations to lead with empathy. “It’s important for leaders to listen to employees—especially those who don’t have access or who come from marginalized backgrounds. If not, they may privilege the voices of those who have access or power when making decisions,” he said.

Get started. Don’t wait for things to return to normal. “DEI is more important now than ever. It’s not something that can be put off until we get back to ‘normal,’” said NGLC’s Vogt. “This is really important to keep front and center. These strategies for remote environments will just make you a better organization, period.” She pointed to resources for building trust, meeting design, small group strategy and decision pause as good starting points for organizations.

Still, the toolkit is not a silver bullet. “We are not putting this toolkit out as the foremost DEI experts. But rather, this toolkit represents our emerging insights as practitioners while exploring DEI in remote environments, and we are very open to feedback and collaboration,” Pham said.

While the toolkit provides steps for organizations to help employees reflect on their team’s practices and grow on their DEI journeys, ultimately structural changes in the organization will be needed for systemic equity to build upon that foundation.


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