Diversity & Inclusion

How Can Employers Foster an Inclusive Culture in the New Normal? Be Intentional

Employers and their employees have shouldered heavy burdens since COVID-19 struck more than a year and a half ago. Normal priorities went by the wayside under the pandemic strain as companies and workers abruptly moved to remote work while dealing with rampant illness and its accompanying anxiety and grief.

Sonja Gittens Ottley

But now as employers are contemplating what the new normal will be, many are thinking about how to get priorities back on track. And making sure diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging don’t fall through the cracks is top of mind for Sonja Gittens Ottley, head of diversity and inclusion at the San Francisco-based work management platform Asana.

Companies around the world are choosing a model that works for them, with some staging a full return to the office while others continue all-remote operations or some kind of hybrid setting. Ottley’s company, Asana, will be pursuing a “office-centric hybrid” model once deciding it is safe to return to the office.

“And we’re thinking about it in terms of how do you ensure that you’re building an environment that continues to be intentional around inclusion?” Ottley says. That question is especially important for Asana because a whopping 53% of the employees in the company’s key office in San Francisco have never been in an Asana office. Instead, they were onboarded remotely.

“So, the first thing that we have to think about is that it’s not just business as usual,” Ottley says. “We’re all coming back together, and this is going to be our new normal.”

Keeping inclusion the focus of the return to the office is crucial for Asana “because, for us, we really think about culture and inclusion as a product, meaning that we want to be really intentional, this isn’t something that just happens,” Ottley continues.

Focus On Mental Health

In thinking about what kind of environment to build, company leadership wants to make sure diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are part of the plan.

“We’re thinking about it in terms of ‘What’s even the language that we use?’” Ottley says. “How are we talking about it? How are we creating spaces to have conversations around the fact that some people might have anxiety about coming back?”

An important way to battle that anxiety, Ottley says, is to bring mental health into the conversation and take steps to normalize those discussions. Normalizing discussions of mental health helps people speak up about what they need. “So, we don’t want people to feel that they’re isolated, that they’re the only person who might be experiencing this,” Ottley adds.

Asana took the step of partnering with mental health and wellness platform Modern Health to help with the transition, while supporting employees’ mental health at large. All employees and their dependents have access to eight free therapy sessions a year to help them navigate any and all mental health challenges.  These challenges include work-related stressors that accompany working in the new normal, like burnout or imposter syndrome.

Recognizing that the last year and a half have been difficult “in terms of the pandemic, in terms of people working from home, in terms of burnout, in terms of social justice,” Ottley says the message has always centered on mental health so people will understand that they should take the time they need to care for themselves and tap into the benefits available to them.

Re-Onboarding with Belonging In Mind

Ottley also is focusing on connection, “particularly if you’re from a group that might have been marginalized or underrepresented at the organization,” she says. That’s where the organization’s employee resource groups play a major role.

“So, our employee resource groups are involved in that return to office, and they’re providing or supporting us through having events and activities for their communities and to ensure that their communities or that people who identify as members of those communities know that they have a community here at Asana, and they have not just a virtual community, but an in-person community at Asana,” Ottley notes. “So, we’re really leaning into creating that space for those connections.”

Mental health’s connection to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is a driver to Ottley’s work. “We know that when people don’t feel as though they belong, they might experience micro-aggressions, or they might not have a sense of psychological safety. All of those things impact on how you can show up and how you can do your best work,” she says.

Globally, Asana has onboarded more than 500 people remotely since the pandemic hit, and Ottley reminds managers to recognize that the different experience takes a reset, and managers need to keep in mind questions such as “How are we going to work together? How are we going to engage together? How are we spending time as a team, building those team norms and behaviors and expectations that might have developed remotely?”

Asana has used manager town halls to give managers resources and checklists they can use to get through the transition. Managers also are encouraged to think about the best practices that have evolved on their teams and build in time for one-on-one check-ins with every employee.

“So, you might be aware that someone is a parent, for example. You may not know that someone is a caregiver,” Ottley says. That makes it important for managers to ask all their employees questions so they create a space to not just support employees but also signal to them that they are supported and the company is being intentional about it.

Life Experience Drives Interest in Diversity Work

Ottley’s desire to incorporate diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging into the company’s new normal stems from her life experiences. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, she moved to the United States about 15 years ago.

A lawyer by profession, Ottley has always had an interest in equity, fairness, and justice. She was living in Miami in 2012 when Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American high school student, was shot and killed while walking in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain who reported the teen as “suspicious.” Zimmerman was eventually found not guilty of the charge of second-degree murder. At the time, Ottley was pregnant, and the killing of Martin made her realize that her child was going to have an experience different from hers. That made her think about how to ensure that her son would be “treated with the equity and the fairness that he deserves.”

That thinking also led to her eventual move to diversity and inclusion work because of the impact workplaces can have on society.