Written by Higson

Exclusion in virtual teams: Why is it a problem and how can we deal with exclusion?

25th August, 2021   •   3 min

Can you think back to a moment at school when you were waiting to be picked for a team? Or anxious to get a seat at the lunch table? Do you remember feeling hurt when you thought you might not be welcomed?

These feelings of exclusion follow us into adulthood. And over the course of the COVID pandemic, exclusion is present in a whole new environment: virtual teams.

What is the impact of exclusion at work?

A study by Naomi Eisenburger at UCLA discovered that exclusion activates the same part of the brain that registers physical pain. Exclusion is painful.

Exclusion has a negative impact on our wellbeing and can prevent us from thriving in our roles. We may feel frustrated and are less likely to contribute for fear of being judged. Creating an inclusive environment where everyone can share thoughts, ideas, concerns and questions is critical for high performing teams.

As Alex Pentland, Director of Human Dynamics Research at MIT, succinctly concludes:

“Communication works best when it is symmetric and balanced”.

Exclusion often arises because of the similarity bias. This bias highlights how we relate more easily to people similar to us, developing relationships based on what we have in common.

Drawing out commonalities can be helpful to build trust, but it can also lead to exclusion.

How does working virtually affect exclusion?

Working virtually often exacerbates exclusion. This is because interactions are generally more formal and pre-planned. We miss the casual interactions, the social catch ups walking to a meeting. We can’t just bump into a colleague and hear about their weekend. Instead, we are almost always making conscious decisions about who we want to speak to, how often and about what. Who to call, who to message, who to email.

We can see the similarity bias in action when we end up interacting with the same people, developing sub-groups and communication ‘bubbles’. Informal and spontaneous interactions are more likely to occur within these bubbles; jokes are shared, questions are asked and problems are solved.

As well as the ‘in-group’, there are those who sit outside the bubble. The ‘in-group’ develops trust and psychological safety but this is not necessarily reflected across the entire team, and can impact team performance.

How can we create an inclusive environment?

The first step to developing a more inclusive virtual team is acknowledging the challenges. Working virtually feels different because it is different, and being prepared for potential limitations and proactively working on them can be powerful.

Once you have acknowledged the difference and the challenges of a virtual environment, here are two actionable steps you can take to pop the bubbles and increase inclusion in your virtual team:

1. Make time to form and maintain relationships

Spending quality time together and recognising commonalities are both powerful ways to bring everyone together. Here is a way to do both at once.

As a team, take the time to develop a useful bank of topics and questions for one-to-one calls. The process of developing the content is in itself insightful. Topics might include individual preferences on ways of working, work context or personal life.

Examples of questions could be: What is an important priority for you right now? What do you need most when you are feeling stressed? What always makes you laugh?

Ask the questions in informal one-to-one conversations. For those of you using Slack, we recommend Donut, a great app that generates random pairings!

These conversations create connections which are vital for developing trust and encouraging inclusive behaviour.

2. Consider different perspectives as a team

To increase inclusion within your team, try the following activity during a team meeting:

  • First list 5 reasons why individuals might not contribute as much during meetings (perhaps messaging individuals separately instead) Pause. Really try to shift and see the world from their perspective. Are they worried about interrupting? Shy? Do they need more time to think?
  • Now imagine how you would think or feel if those reasons applied to you. Write down a few thoughts on this
  • Write down three actions or behaviours you could take if you notice someone is not contributing
  • Take time to think about when and how you could introduce these behaviours. For ideas on how to build these behaviours into a habit, you can also read our blog on ‘Nudging’

The key takeaway

It is important to recognise that exclusion can take place more easily in virtual teams and can have a negative impact on both the individual and the team. Creating an inclusive culture in a remote or hybrid working environment is a conscious decision. If we do this we can create stronger relationships and higher performing teams.

If you would like help using either of the above tools, or advice on how to increase inclusion in your virtual team, we would love to hear from you – contact the Higson team.