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How to harness the power of inclusivity on remote teams

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As a user experience (UX) researcher at Google, I’ve spent the past several years working on distributed teams and helping build remote communication products. I recently wrote about the science behind why video calls feel different from in-person meetings. 

I’ve seen that working from home has sparked genuine introspection about team dynamics. Some colleagues feel isolated, while others can’t get a moment alone. Some are energized while others are struggling. 

Often, when we talk about inclusivity, we’re talking about making sure that people from underrepresented groups have a voice. Feeling included is especially critical as teams strive to do their best work from home. But in addition to visible differences like race and gender, we should also think about inclusivity in terms of cognitive diversity, a critical ingredient in how teams make decisions

Healthy teams use their diversity to tackle new challenges. Higher cognitive diversity on teams—differences in perspective and information processing styles—is significantly correlated with higher performance, and should be leveraged. 

Most of us probably agree that trust is important for fostering diverse viewpoints, but cultivating it as a team can be tricky, especially when we’re distanced. Here are some behaviors I’ve seen work on teams at Google:

Face the friction 

Different perspectives and working styles can create conflict, but according to Kim Christfort, Suzanne M. Johnson Vickberg and biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, we can harness those differences to achieve “productive friction.” They describe four distinct styles of work that reflect our diverse brain chemistry, and show how the differences, if left unmanaged, can lead to tensions, misunderstandings and friction. 

  1. Pioneers: curious, seek out new information

  2. Guardians: pragmatic, want to see evidence before making decisions

  3. Drivers: assertive, generate momentum

  4. Integrators: empathetic, rely on intuition to get groups to communicate better

I’ve seen teams make hasty decisions when a Driver bulldozes the cautious warnings of Guardians, or people talk past each other without Integrator-level diplomacy. I’ve felt stuck on teams full of inquisitive Pioneers who needed a Driver to push forward. 

On the flip side, when I’ve felt safe to talk about challenges I’m facing, my colleagues do, too. When a team feels safe—a rare but fundamental factor—it can work together effectively in spite of different styles. With safety as a foundation, we see each other's experience more clearly, and have permission to help improve each other’s work more directly. 

Tip: Get comfortable talking about where you see friction. Carve out time to talk about a recent meeting where the conversation dynamics felt tense or out of balance. Identify what you could’ve done to make them better and how different dynamics might help achieve a better outcome next time. You can also look ahead: As a new project kicks off, ask each collaborator what personal success  looks like—being heard, having expertise recognized—and how it connects to larger team goals.  

Make meetings a safe space 

We build trust by talking to each other. In fact, how well we share the “talking stick” and our sensitivity to the emotional states of others are both significant factors in how well groups solve problems and make decisions. 

Who you invite, how many people you include and the length of the meeting you schedule all impact the outcome. When real dialogue is critical to achieve the goals of your meeting, carefully consider which voices you need in the room and if you’ve budgeted enough time to hear from all of them. Twenty people in a half hour meeting gives everyone 90 seconds to hold the mic, if conversational turns were hypothetically equal. If that’s not enough, you need to add time or subtract people.  

As we look ahead to a new normal—or more like a wildly diverse ecosystem of new normals (plural)—the conversations we’re starting today will pay dividends and may even help make in-person collaboration better than  before. 

Tip: Make it safe for individuals to share their working styles—the superpowers they bring to the team, where they want to grow, where they need help. Create a regular cadence to get your team comfortable showing work in progress and incorporating feedback. 

Let everyone know  this process of shaping each other’s work allows expertise to travel, and helps the group leverage everyone’s unique talents. Model what it looks like to apply your expertise to help someone and to get help from an expert in another area. 

Pair up

The simplest way to start turning diversity into a strength is by pairing up two people, who think differently. 

Last year, I partnered with another researcher in Europe to analyze a small mountain of survey data. We had different working styles and early on, decided to open a dialogue about how we could best complement each other. When things started to go wrong, we’d check in. After seven or eight months of check-ins every few weeks, we’d made a modest breakthrough in understanding cross-product user journeys—because we put in the time to find the places where we could be better together.

Pairs or duos—the most basic unit of teamwork—are the simplest place to start building safety. When two people who think differently join forces and accomplish something they couldn’t have done alone, it sends a signal to other teams. And the outcomes of a diverse partnership can become examples for your entire organization.  

Tip: Form a partnership with someone whose work you can complement. Set aside time to be ultra-clear about roles, responsibilities and nuanced topics. Be extra diligent about a tentative new agreement.  

You can also choose one working relationship and commit to over-communicating about what you need from that person and what they need from you to make things work better. 

Respect your team’s attention like it’s your own 

The channels we use to communicate matter. Throughout the day, we reach for different tools to get different things done for a reason. Groups work better when we use tools that fit with our communication goals and that match the preferences of our teammates. For example, I use chat messages as a quick way to share updates or request information or track down files. But some of my colleagues prefer email because it’s a more familiar way for them to keep track of things. 

Oftentimes, and especially because we’re working from home, we rely on text-based tools. But when a teammate asks, “should we jump on a call to clarify?” they’re suggesting a live conversation can resolve an ambiguous topic better than text-based tools. 

If your meeting schedule looks anything like mine, trying to navigate that ambiguity over email might seem easier, but it’s a mistake. Making time for a quick call allows you to hear nuance, adjust to new information in real time, build trust and can often get you to clarity faster than more emails could. 

Tip: Develop strategies for managing your energy and attention. Share them with your team and trade best practices. Maintain an ongoing dialogue about which communication tools are best for different scenarios. 

Hopefully, these insights and tips can help you and your team use your different strengths to your advantage, and everyone can benefit from a more inclusive workplace--even from home.

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