The current return to office period is rife with questions about inclusion. Principal among them is how do you use the shifts around work to make workplaces more inclusive for workers of color especially?
For answers, we reached out to Daisy Auger-Domínguez, who wrote the new book Inclusion Revolution and is the chief people officer at Vice Media Group. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:
Research suggests that the engagement of workers of color and their sense of fairness in the workplace have risen amid remote work, which Slack’s Future Forum has interpreted as meaning that there is less code switching and workplace toxicity than when in person. What’s your view of this?
I’m not 100% behind that notion—it depends on the company and the industry. There are some organizations and industries for which I can see how that might be true. Working remotely, you don’t have to be subjected to everyday microagressions or put on what I call your ‘emotional armor’ because you don’t know what’s going to come at you. Absolutely, that is real.
But there are also power dynamics and power abuses over video. I see it in the case of people hanging up on videos. Who feels they have the right to hang up versus who doesn’t? I see it in who shows their image versus who doesn’t show their image. I see it in who chats and who doesn’t need to chat. The social force that makes you think, ‘Well, if everyone’s chatting then I need to chat,’ is the exact same pressure that you had in-person when you were in a meeting where people would talk and you felt like, ‘Do I need to raise my hand? When do I raise my hand? When do I speak up?’
What are the specific dimensions of inclusion that are most relevant and urgent in this moment when organizations are bringing workers back into offices?
I’ve been calling it ‘the Ease Back.’ We’re not returning to offices. We’re easing back to offices. Part of it is also buying ourselves time to rebuild our muscles for commuting and for managing teams that are now hybrid. We spent the entire summer last year categorizing all of our employees into the hybrid models. Like most companies, about 80% to 85% of our employees are hybrid. The remaining 10% to 15% are mostly remote or mostly in office.
We came back, and we’ve spent a lot of time trying to give voice to employees. That’s one of the most important dimensions. It is what clearly came up in the summer of 2020 as one of the elements that employees felt they didn’t have, from a power perspective. Managers and leaders might be insisting that they want employees in the office, but we have to give voice to their concerns and then respond—not react—in a thoughtful way.
We’ve been very, very intentional about the language that we use. I’ve sent notes almost every other week or so to our employees in preparation. I’m very intentional in saying that I don’t know what it’s going to look like. I say things like, ‘We’re taking a look at this, but here’s the data that we’ve collected from all of you’ or ‘Here’s the anecdotal feedback that we’ve been collecting.’
We started building asynchronous brainstorming projects with employees globally. The questions that we’re asking them are things like, ‘What do you miss the most about working in offices? What do you think is the best environment for an office? Where have you built really deep connections with your teams?’
The next piece is communication. We’re sending out a note, and we’re sharing with everyone where all the neighborhoods (which are what we’re calling teams) are in the offices. Why? Because we have a little over 50% of our employees who have been hired during the pandemic, so there are people who have never even been to our offices who don’t know where to sit.
The final point is about empowerment, so that employees feel that they get to shape it and co-create it with their managers.
The role of managers has changed in the past two years. What ideas do you have for team managers to improve the day-to-day experience for women and people of color?
The most basic is to really listen, to build relationships, and to ask better questions. We have spent a long time asking the wrong questions. We ask the question, ‘Why is this place not more diverse?’ But we don’t ask, ‘What are the conditions that we’ve created to keep people out of this place to keep it the same organization?’ Managers don’t spend enough time sitting down with their team and asking questions like: What are the obstacles to your success? What’s holding you up right now? How can I help you reduce those obstacles?
That’s not a simple question to be asked. You need to build the trust, and trust is consistency over time. People need to trust that if they share their hangups with you, that something will actually happen. Managers may not have processed enough to think that this person who’s in front of you may not trust you enough to tell you exactly how they’re feeling. So don’t ask them how they’re feeling. Make it more contextual and ask them specifically what is hanging them up. What are their challenges? What are their obstacles? What does that look like? And genuinely ask, ‘How can I help you overcome them?’
Once you’ve asked these questions, then you actually have to act on them because that’s how you build trust. Certainly, we’re looking constantly at representation for teams and other initiatives across the employee lifecycle, but it begins with listening. It begins with asking better questions, and it begins with building trust by actually being responsive to what you hear.
You’ve said it is both important and challenging for managers to embrace discomfort. How would you explain the need for discomfort and how to navigate it to a manager?
The biggest challenge to diversity is fear. We fear what we don’t know. We fear saying the wrong thing. We fear not doing enough. We fear messing up. It’s overcoming that fear that is really what’s going to set us free. It depends on managers and leaders. I’ll give you an example. When I joined Vice during the summer of 2020, managers were having a hard time conducting performance conversations with Black people. They would come to me saying, ‘I don’t know what to say. That person has not delivered on their job, but I don’t know how to say it.’ And I said, ‘Well, how would you say it to a white person?’
I asked them to sit down and tell me what they would say and what their fear was. The fear was getting canceled, that someone was going to post on social media. What they truly feared, though, is not delivering in the way it should be delivered. They weren’t exercising their own courage muscles to do the right thing.
This is their team member. Managers are responsible for ensuring that they have as much of an opportunity for growth as everybody else on the team. You actually diminish their opportunity for growth by not being willing to give them the feedback that they deserve. Research has shown that Black people and brown people, especially women of color, do not receive the feedback that they need. By the time that they get fired, demoted, or pushed out of an organization, there are years worth of constructive feedback that could have been given. And it is not their fault. It is the manager’s.
Read a full transcript of this conversation here, including discussion of what to do and not do when hiring.