It’s hard to ignore the pandemic’s impact on the increase of distributed workplaces, whether companies chose to institute hybrid or fully-remote work. But while remote-first workplaces have offered many benefits for both employers and employees, they’ve also brought challenges to teams’ connectivity, collaboration, and psychological safety.
As we head into 2023, organizations now face a new challenge: with an uncertain economy and labor market, they have to set up a standard for flexible work in a way that balances business outcomes with employee expectations. In today’s episode, we’re going to look at some of the ways DEI can support psychological safety for employees in 2023 and beyond.
Here’s what we’ll cover in today’s episode:
- Key post-pandemic work trends (and what this means for DEI)
- The key challenges for psychological safety within distributed teams
- Supporting psychological safety for DEI practitioners (and why it matters)
- Examples of good practice to build psychological safety in distributed workforces
Welcome to the Inclusion in Progress podcast where we give you the ideas, actions and insights to help you build more equity at your workplace and in the world at large. I'm your host, Kay Fabella, international expert on diversity, equity and inclusion, a Filipina American living in Spain and your guide in navigating this DEI journey. Having worked with teams at companies such as Philips, the IMF, Red Hat, PepsiCo and more, I know firsthand that the work of inclusion only works when everyone has a seat at the table. Regardless of your personal entrypoint into this conversation: your race, ethnicity, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, country of origin, or educational background, we all have a role to play in creating inclusion for all and it starts with us having conversations we need to create the change we wish to see. So let's dive into today's episode.
Hello, hello, and welcome back to the show! We are so excited to kick off another year with you – another calendar year, for those who are tuning in live. This episode is our first for the year 2023. And so on behalf of myself and Team IIP, we really hope that you had a restful holiday season, however you celebrated it, and a bright start to the New Year!
So as you'll remember from Episode 101, which was the last episode we released for 2022, we have officially published our 2023 Whitepaper – and we will be giving you that link in a second. But I really wanted to make sure that you all had an opportunity to go and download it, check it out if you haven't already. And, of course, as we were prepping the Whitepaper for the end of the year, we were looking back on, you know, themes from the last couple of years and the strange time that we've been living in since March 2020. And 2021 – as we know – all about the Great Resignation, a million think pieces on it. 2022, in a nutshell, if we had to boil it down to one, I guess, workplace trend… it was Quiet Quitting. That was also another one where we saw a bunch of think pieces all over the place. And, on paper, as we were discussing it (Team IIP and I), we were looking through… Oh, Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting, they kind of sound like polar opposites. But they actually do have a lot in common. One is, maybe, mass leaving and one is, maybe, silent leaving? But, ultimately, both of these – call them – “movements” are really just about employees expressing a desire that we all have to be valued, to feel heard and supported, especially when there just seems to be more and more uncertainty outside of our day-to-day lives that affect, inevitably, our work every day.
So, as we move into 2023, we really wanted to take a look in this episode at what companies need to focus on to ensure that they continue to keep their best people, to provide that psychological safety which allows them to retain their best talent so that, even if they do have to stick around, they aren't engaging in Quiet Quitting.
So, in case you didn't know already, my name is Kay Fabella. I'm a DEI consultant for remote teams. I'm the CEO of Inclusion in Progress, LLC, where we specialize in inclusive distributed work strategies. And I'm also your host for this Inclusion in Progress podcast, where you will get research-backed industry insights into the future of work and, of course, practical How To’s for Equity and Inclusion in a distributed world; based off of our own client consultations and experience as a team that spans EMEA, APAC and the Americas, that's also fully remote, so you will also get a global perspective. And with that in mind, we've obviously been through a lot the past year… two years… three years. It just feels like a very long year!
But as we head into this first stretch of 2023… as, you know, there is really good, good vibes as we start off the new year. There isn't anything quite like resetting a calendar and feeling that momentum and energy of, “Yeah, this is the year that I'm going to do this!,” right? But since we hope that you're in this headspace of reflection and, hopefully, more energized after a restful period, we really wanted to make sure that you had the resources in place to set you up for success in the new year. So Team IIP, as I shared earlier, is very pleased to announce that our 2023 Whitepaper on the Future of Work Culture is live on our website! And now I will give you that link, it is: inclusioninprogress.com/learn, and we will be sure to leave a link for that in the show notes for you to head there. And if you are on your desktop, feel free to pop open that tab and download your copy!
So that's been, let's say, a little over a year since we published our last Whitepaper, and lots has changed in that time. Feels like a lot change from week to week, if we’re being honest. But, in summary, we are now two years post-pandemic. We've watched companies navigate whatever version of Return-to-Office, of hybrid, of going back into the office, leaving the office fully-distributed, whatever that really looked like and whatever form that took, sometimes all within the same year. And that's put a lot of the DEI and HR and People Leaders that we've worked with and, you know, are privileged to call our colleagues and friends… it has put them in a very challenging position. It's almost like they've had to switch more gears than a Formula One racecar. I do not really watch Formula One… that is my Spanish husband's influence, but he will put it on to make sure that he gets to watch and he knows, for some reason, the sound of really loud cars lulls me to sleep. And now, you know!
But that aside, you know, it really does feel like the people who are supporting organizations and the people within organizations to feel safe and supported to do their jobs the best they can, no matter where they're working from, have been switching gears constantly. So we've also really observed, since our last Whitepaper was published – the one in 2022 – we supported clients around identifying barriers to psychological safety and distributed work, which obviously was very different from the barriers to psychological safety when everybody was co-located or in the same office. We supported organizations with increasing buy-in for inclusion for distributed teams, whether it was at the senior leadership level or even for managers. And, of course, we were guiding teams in how to create cultures of resilience and understanding to support their connectivity and their ability to collaborate with one another despite not sharing a physical space. So, in this episode, I'm going to be exploring how DEI can support psychological safety for employees in 2023 and beyond with what we've seen over the past year, as we have been working alongside client partners, particularly in the tech space, to navigate this post-pandemic work environment. And, of course, we will also look at the role that DEI, or diversity, equity and inclusion, will play in the year to come.
So if you are digging this episode and you've, maybe, binged a couple of episodes and you like what you're hearing, please follow us on your favorite podcast app! That allows us to not only notify you when our new episodes go live, but also to help us reach even more folks with the conversations and resources we are sharing here on the Inclusion in Progress podcast. And, for our longtime listeners that now span 36 countries, if you are listening, please consider leaving us a review. This is not just me. This is literally on behalf of the multiple people that are helping to promote and publish these episodes on time for you in your earbuds, week after week, month after month. And those reviews really do help us reach listeners who would gain value from these conversations and, of course, they could be current or aspiring DEI leaders like yourselves, or maybe there's somebody out there who's an ally who wants to find their way to support greater equity and inclusion for those who are historically underrepresented on their teams, or maybe there's a manager who's leading a distributed team themselves and is looking for some additional insights in how to support better collaboration on their team. Whoever that is, your review actually helps more people who are officially and unofficially leading Equity and Inclusion at work to have access to the discussions that we're having here. And we really do need all hands on deck as we head into this new year with all the challenges that I'm sure we'll be facing and one of the ways that you can support us in our mission to help create greater equity and inclusion at work and in our world is by leaving us a review.
So, with that said, it is hard to ignore the pandemic's impact on the increase of distributed workplaces, whether companies chose some version of hybrid, fully-remote, or somewhere in between. But while remote-first workplaces have offered many benefits, as we know, for both employers and employees, we also know, for those of us who've had to strategize and switch those gears in that Formula One car (never gonna live that one down!), it's also brought challenges, right? We've had to deal with people with connectivity issues, being in the office, navigating when they're connected, and whether or not they're on Teams or Twist or Symphony or… trying to be inclusive here of all the platforms we’ve seen. You know, whatever collaboration that needed to happen, that would be a simple swivel in your chair moment in an office, had to be navigated a little bit more subtly when you weren't co-located. And, of course, that doesn't include all the different barriers that arose to psychological safety for teams, whether they were at work specifically or things that were happening outside of work.
Now, as a company, as we've shared, we've primarily worked with tech, specifically, the organizations that we've worked with over the last couple of years have been Red Hat, Instagram, and Meta, Jamf, Listrak, and several others. So we've heard a lot of the challenges that organizations are having navigating the strange next normal, knowing that their teams are just more spread out than ever before, but are also really happy to not have to come into a physical office space. And so, in this weird flux period, we've watched the strain on leaders, spending the last two and a half – almost three years – under enormous pressure, having to guide their teams and organizations through uncertainty amidst unprecedented economic challenges. So the tech industry, in particular – and that's when we can speak on because we spend a lot of time there – we know has the capacity and responsibility to shape our future workplaces and influence global change. Considering that, not only have they helped shape the post-pandemic distributed work environment we've seen, but also they now touch every aspect of our day-to-day lives, even for industries that are not primarily tech-based. And so knowing that as we head into 2023, organizations like those in the tech industry, we recognize, have a new challenge in front of them. So we've got an uncertain economy, we've got an uncertain labor market. So companies are now not just looking at their bottom lines, but trying to set a standard for flexible work in a way that balances business outcomes with the expectations that employees have post-pandemic. And despite what many organizations may think about diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives being a Nice To Have, the reality couldn't be further from the truth. DEI will, in fact, be more business critical for employees as companies aim to untap their team's full potential.
So, in today's episode, we're going to look at some of the ways that DEI can support psychological safety for employees in 2023 and beyond. So let's dive in.
So first, we know that DEI is critical in supporting psychological safety for distributed teams, especially when there are more threats to that psychological safety outside of the workplace than before. So, as organizations navigated remote and hybrid workforces over the last two years, the distributed work model also revealed new opportunities. We saw ways that we could redesign, reimagine, restructure strategies to support psychological safety at work when teams weren't co-located. Now we know company culture used to depend heavily on in-person interactions, shifts in leadership, and, of course, physical proximity to office space. Now with this shift to flexible work we've seen unfold over the last couple of years, it provided opportunities for historically-excluded groups that organizations often struggled to attract and retain. So women and primary caregivers, for example, or those who are maybe not even located within the same city, driving distance from that city, or even within the same country to be able to have those opportunities. So tech firms, for example, we're actually able to leverage the data that they gathered from the remote teams to redefine their company culture and use the precedent of distributed work to attract top talent from so many other places in the world they never thought to look or had the opportunity to do before.
Pre-pandemic, as we know, DEI strategies have traditionally been aimed at enabling co-located teams – so, co-located, meaning teams in the same location – to feel respected and empowered to contribute their best work. Now, this definition of psychological safety really depended on an organizational culture, talent development, team building, well-being, and career advancement strategies that really centered on gathering in a shared office or physical work environment. And, although women, People of Color, disabled and LGBTQ professionals often dealt with a decline in psychological safety in these physical workplaces, office spaces in the tech industry, in particular, were designed with the intention to provide some degree of equity and also promote collaboration between employees. And, as we know, that all changed when many of us were forced to work from home during those first stages of lockdown.
So three years on… I know, three years! Wow… But if you are sitting there also absorbing that feeling of, “Whoa, three years!”... there's just no erasing our shared lived experience. There's no erasing the impact of this shift to distributed work. Because people have proved that you can be a productive employee and prioritize time for life outside of work, something that I really did appreciate as a Filipino-American who moved to Spain 13 years ago. It's something, I think, I really embraced when I landed here, of prioritizing life outside of work which, I think, in many traditional corporate environments that are in, say, Anglo-Saxon countries, such as the US, the UK, and maybe even some Asian countries, are very focused on productivity. And, strangely, being forced to work from home helped us reorganize and reshift our priorities and prove to people and organizations that there was a way that you could find, not just work-life balance, but work-life integration.
So, with that said, flexibility, well-being… These are now non-negotiables for employees of diverse backgrounds and generations, that companies that trade in innovation, like those in tech, really can't afford to ignore. And, of course, with this uncertain labor and economic climate, there are more threats to our team's sense of psychological safety than ever which will, of course, affect their ability to perform and contribute at their best.
So even if we didn't let go of our teams in some of those headliner layoffs, our teams… we'd want to avoid them engaging in Quiet Quitting right? So organizations must demonstrate that they're doubling down on initiatives like those in DEI that are focused on centering their teams well-being. So creating psychological safety within distributed teams really just requires organizations to rethink the way that they communicate and manage expectations, looking at things, such as: what psychological safety looks like on a team that spans different cultures and countries, religions, political views, native languages and timezones; or what psychological safety looks like when workers relocate to a city or a state or country that allows them a more affordable lifestyle for them and, say, their families, but actually sets them apart physically from their team members and all the challenges that that brings. We should also look at things like what psychological safety looks like when employees are also primary breadwinners and caregivers for their families, or what psychological safety looks like for those who are subjected to racial discrimination, homophobia and transphobia, the overturning of Roe v Wade, for example, like in the United States; an ongoing invasion of Ukraine, a spike in their household costs and appending Global Recession; or what psychological safety looks like when teams navigate neurodivergence, increased rates of burnout, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. So with all of those things in mind, if companies mean to engage and retain top talent on their distributed teams so that they don't engage in things like Quiet Quitting, they're going to need to double down on ways to support teams’ different layers and levels of psychological safety that are included with strategic DEI and work culture initiatives in 2023, rather than diverting attention away from it as we move into a recessive period.
The other point we wanted to highlight in today's episode is the fact that – call them DEI, HR, People Leaders – whoever is tasked with supporting people in our organizations also need to benefit from psychological safety if we want them to continue to support our organization's well-being. Now it's no secret that companies, particularly in industries that pride themselves on innovation, like those in tech, have historically preferred to hire younger talent. Of course, the preference for digital savvy is a skill that Millennials – this middle-aged Millennial is raising her hand here! – and Gen Z professionals have in spades. It also means that they are more connected to and aware of social issues than previous generations. So we witnessed a lot of these younger employees around the world, who were equally vocal about when Roe v. Wade was overturned in the US, as they were about the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Millennials and Gen Zers are also more likely to be vocal supporters of social impact initiatives and expect their employers to follow suit. Which means if companies follow through on commitments they've made – very public commitments, might I add – towards social justice and equity, they can expect loyalty from employees who are happy to see their employer walk their talk, and a reputation that strengthens their ability to attract future talent on the other side of this recessive period. Which is why it's little wonder, as we saw an interest in DEI and DEI roles, or DEI-related roles skyrocket. In fact, one study found that job postings for Equity and Inclusion leaders increased by 123% between May and September of 2021. And that's encouraging! So with that said, according to Culture Amp’s 2022 workplace DEI report, nearly 60% of companies reported not having any DEI specialist role. 40% said they were investing in building out the specialized expertise needed to build successful equity and inclusion programs. And these roles also tend to be new, 80% of DEI roles have actually been hired in the last 18 months, meaning that most companies are at the beginning of their change journeys, and we may yet see additional progress.
Which brings me to the point that we were trying to make earlier, that these very same leaders, who are tasked with providing and designing for greater psychological safety for their teams with their DEI strategies, seldom benefited from the same sense of psychological safety. Many practitioners that we worked with that Inclusion in Progress, as we know, come from marginalized backgrounds themselves. Which means that they naturally have a personal stake in their work succeeding in their organizations and are, therefore, far more likely to take on emotional labor. By the very nature of the work they do, they may also end up having to relive their own traumas over and over again, as we witnessed with continued attacks on the rights of historically marginalized groups, both within and outside of workplaces. Not only that, and this is something we can speak from our own personal experience as well as those we've spoken to in this field, DEI can often be lonely, thankless work that requires emotional strength and stamina. Behind the scenes practitioners like us are often holding space for others' emotions, alongside our own. We're trying to meet folks where they are, to encourage them in their own inclusive leadership or inclusive skills journey. We're trying to quickly diagnose and assess the best fit solution for a specific team or marginalized group, and also decenter our own lived experiences with exclusion if we aim to create inclusive – sustainably inclusive – environments and experiences for our organization as a whole. We're also tasked with delivering cultural change and solutions at the enterprise level if we're working within an organization, often with limited resources and even smaller timeframes. And for the DEI leaders that we worked with, many say that they're also running up against disinterest and non-responsiveness from the very people that they need on board for change to happen. We've also witnessed multiple cases where DEI practitioners have faced pushback from the people who have hired them and from the underrepresented groups they're tasked with supporting, who may want change to happen faster than can be implemented. So being under pressure to perform, to become the go to educator for others on all things DEI and an organization, including being a representative for employees whose experiences do not mirror their own, can sometimes do more harm than good. So it's hardly surprising that so many DEI leaders we know experience burnout in 2022.
Until DEI and the psychological safety it provides to all teams receives the full buy-in of leaders, until DEI becomes embedded in every core aspect of a business in a data-driven and measurable way, And until DEI turns into the standard for behaviors supported by an inclusive company culture where every single person contributes; lone DEI practitioners or leaders, or very small teams, will continue to be seen as the be-all and end-all to solve for every marginalized experience in the workplace, which is a one-way ticket to burnout and a guaranteed way to undo all the amazing progress that DEI practitioners have been pushing for over the last few years.
So in 2023, organizations have an opportunity to continue to align with employee and stakeholder demands for social impact by embedding accountability for DEI initiatives at all levels of their organizations in a way that will increase psychological safety, organizational reputation and ensure future growth.
So there you have it, how can DEI support psychological safety for employees and 2023 and beyond!
Now, at Inclusion in Progress, we've always recognized the need to investigate barriers to psychological safety at the individual, behavioral, and organizational levels while navigating the reality of our post-pandemic distributed world. Because we know that identifying how to remove those barriers allows organizations to create a work culture where employees contribute their best ideas, rather than engaging in things such as Quiet Quitting, ensuring an engaged productive and equitable work environment, no matter where employees choose to work from. We also know that the last three years have been challenging for every organization to navigate, and it's important to provide resources that set you up for success. To that end, we're pleased to announce the release of our 2023 Whitepaper on the Future of Work Culture: How to Make Distributed Work Inclusive. You can download a copy on our website at inclusioninprogress.com/learn, or head to the link in the show notes to grab your copy. And if you'd like to learn how we can support your organization with creating inclusive distributed work strategies in 2023, you can email us directly at email@example.com to book a no pressure consultation call with our team.
As always, thank you for listening, thank you for continuing to share these episodes with others, and we'll see you next time on Inclusion in Progress!