"Is this really harassment?" is a question I get a lot. Here's the answer.Read More
I am quickly starting to hate and despise the words “virtual” and “remote.” That’s a shame, because they are perfectly decent words than can be very useful in the right place at the right time.
What I hate and despise is when those words are used to describe work and the people who do it. For example:
“We sold our office building and now we have a virtual office.”
“We allow some of our staff to work remotely when that’s appropriate.”
“I just hired two new people. One works in the office and the other is remote.”
“We are improving our infrastructure so we can work virtually.”
Go to your bookshelf. Blow the dust of your college-years copy of Roget’s Thesaurus and open it up. (OK, I know you didn’t do that, so just open a Google search window if you want to play along.)
Look up the words “virtual” and “remote.” Here is what you will find.
Synonyms for virtual: indirect, unacknowledged, tacit, potential, implied, basic
Synonyms for remote: far-off, faraway, inaccessible, isolated, lonely, unknown, alien
Antonyms for virtual: actual, authentic, real
Antonyms for remote: close, known, near, open, sociable, loved
Now think about what you are really saying when you describe your work environment and your coworkers or staff as “virtual” and “remote.” You are saying, “My inaccessible, lonely and unknown coworkers work in a way that is unacknowledged, implied, and indirect.”
When you use these words to describe what you do, when you do it, and how you do it, you are sending implicit and unconscious messages to those “remote” workers in your “virtual” office, and to your members, your customers, your clients, and yourself.
What if you just called the workplace, “work” and the staff, “workers?” Then, “In my organization, the remote staff work in a virtual office,” becomes “In my organization, the workers work.” And it hardly seems worth stating something that obvious.
“In my organization, workers work.” No judgment, no anxieties, just an accurate statement of what is so.
Try it for a week or two or three. Eliminate the words “virtual” and “remote” from conversations about how work gets done. Better yet, whenever you hear yourself using time and place as a measure of work getting done, stop yourself. Stop admiring Joe for always getting to the office early and leaving late. Stop making snarky remarks when Sally leaves at 3 pm to go to her daughter’s dance recital or soccer game. Let go of the outdated belief that work can only be done in a particular place at a particular time.
Change your word choices and your messages and, ultimately, your beliefs about work, and notice how much easier it is to focus on what is real, actual, and authentic. Reframe expectations so that desired results (including benchmarks and deadlines) are clear and explicitly agreed to by those responsible for creating them. Hold everyone accountable for producing those results, without exception. Focus on the ultimate outcomes, the advances and accomplishments that truly tell us that work has been done.
Then ask yourself, “Does it really matter when and where work gets done, as long as the results are what we wanted?”
That’s not virtual, and it isn’t remote. It is actual, and it is as close at hand as you decide to make it.
Those of us who care about diversity and full inclusion in the workplace talk a lot about unconscious bias and the forms it takes. We call it things like microaggression, microinequity, microadvantage, microaffirmation. When we get cranky enough, we talk about people being “clueless” or “tone-deaf” (and occasionally use some stronger language). We talk about privilege and how it shows up at work.
We want to believe that everyone we talk to knows and believes that blatant discrimination and obvious bias - for example, Sir Tim Hunt's recent comments on women in science - is not to be tolerated. That kind of behavior, we think, is quickly and easily recognized and dealt with.
But what about things that are not so micro- and yet don’t quite rise to the level of blatant discrimination? Small actions that are not deliberate attempts to exclude or discourage particular groups of people are still noticed, and provoke a reaction. Often, that reaction is suppressed out of fear of being labeled “overly sensitive” or worse.
Two things have triggered this question for me.
The first is the rise in popularity of “fitness competitions” at meetings, conferences, and in other professional settings. These usually involved the use of pedometers and other worn devices that track an individual’s movement, with prizes awarded on an individual or team basis. This seems like a great idea at first glance: get everyone up and out of their seats and moving, fight obesity, improve health, and so on. Lots of fun, unless you’re the person who can’t get up and out of your seat. To me, that looks a lot like blatant discrimination against people with impaired mobility, who are once again forced into the position of outsider. Apparently, we haven’t moved all that far from a time when wheelchair users were excluded from participation by a lack of ramps and elevators, and no one else seemed to notice.
The second is this piece from “the experts” at Fast Company: “Is it Hurting My Career to Skip Happy Hour With My Co-Workers?" The responding expert, Art Markman, advises that yes, it might be, if those happy hours are giving those co-workers a chance to bond and build relationships, complete with in-jokes and shared memories, and you’re not there. The suggested solution? Spend your time and energy creating other office social events that fit your schedule better. (The query came from a person with young children who wanted to spend evenings at home.) So here is a situation that, to me, is an example of blatant discrimination against parents, not to mention recovering alcoholics (for whom being in a bar may be a strong trigger), people who are hard-of-hearing (ambient noise in bars is difficult even for those with perfect hearing), and the claustrophobic (ok, that’s me – I get panicky in noisy, crowded places and happy hour bars are my idea of an inner circle of hell).
Both of these take me back to a time when playing golf was crucial to advancement in professional and executive careers. The bonding, wheeling, and dealing that took place during rounds of golf and at the “19th hole” in the clubhouse bar were key to moving up. No matter that many (at one time, most) of the clubs where this went on did not admit women, Jews, or people of color, not to mention the barrier to those who were physically unable to swing a club or walk the course. There was even legal recognition of the discrimination that resulted. The importance of golf games to success in business was one of the primary arguments that forced the admittance of Jews, women, and people of color into exclusive country clubs.
How can you and your business or organization avoid this kind of not-so-subtle, and certainly not micro-, exclusion in the workplace and other professional settings?
For a start, when planning events and activities, ask yourself, “Is this something that everyone can fully participate in? What barriers to participation might arise, and how can we address those fairly?
As a leader or manager, pay attention to how, and where, your teams interact socially. If their default is a happy hour meet-up, don’t assume everyone is all that happy about it and that those who are missing out on the meet-ups aren’t interested in being social with their co-workers. Take the responsibility for creating alternatives that take place during regular working hours. Keep in mind that a large part of the appeal of happy hour is the absence of “the boss(es),” and plan other social activities accordingly.
What has been your experience with this kind of exclusion? What suggestions do you have for addressing or avoiding it?