The widespread shift to remote work decreased the face-to-face interactions that reinforced workplace culture. Employees are facing challenges from communication to supporting family in a global health crisis, and it is difficult to keep spirits up. Companies must prioritize their people during these unprecedented times.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Surabhi Lal, Adjunct Professor at NYU Wagner and Chief Impact Officer at Luminary; a global, inclusive hub for professional development that is driven by women, for women. She shares what steps workplaces and their executives can take to support diversity and promote inclusion as they navigate a virtual workforce.

Linda Devonish-Mills: A sense of belonging amongst coworkers promotes a positive working environment. In this increasingly remote workplace, how can organizations build what you have described as “communities of belonging?”

Surabhi Lal: Belonging means being seen, heard, and valued. We find ourselves in a moment that calls for real connection. Organizations cannot rely on the informal ways in which employees used to interact and connect. Instead, leaders need to intentionally build a culture that centers on belonging. Creating communities of belonging has been part of my practice of work and it starts with empathy. Leaders must create a welcoming environment, especially in a time of disruption where people may be feeling isolated, stressed, and uncertain.

There are many people who may feel invisible or disconnected in a remote environment, and there may be people who are surprised at how much they like remote work. Many of us have likely seen the inside of our colleagues’ homes — this level of intimacy offers us an opportunity to better understand each other. The shared purpose of work gives leaders a place to explore what connects people to their work and what they find meaningful. Ask questions of your colleagues about what it would feel like to be seen, heard, and valued to increase belonging in your organizations. Leaders must be ready to listen, truly listen, to the answers.

For some, it might be the ideal time to take on a stretch assignment, for others it might be important to have flexibility, and for others a sense of trust that they are participating in a meeting even with their camera off. Doors are open for conversations that would not have been possible at this time last year. There is an opportunity to co-create new formal and informal practices and traditions within teams and organizations that build trust and connection on a human level. 

LM: Life as a working parent is both rewarding and challenging, especially given the current global pandemic. How can companies support parents who have children that are remote learning?

SL: As a working parent with a child in remote learning, this is a very personal topic. Being a working parent has made me both a better parent and better at my work. Supporting remote learning and creating a space of safety for my child without access to supports that I relied on before is difficult. To make it work for me, I reduced my work hours. Companies large and small have had to come up with ways to support working parents in short order and I hope this will continue to post-pandemic. I have seen organizations create flexible work hours, opportunities for parental pandemic leave, support for childcare both in-person and online, and some have even increased their financial benefits for childcare.

While all of this is important, there is still much to be done to adequately support working parents. We need to shift culture both in offices and in homes. In offices, managers and colleagues of parents need to understand the unexpected and challenging dynamics that happen while working from home. For example, children may interrupt meetings (no matter how many times they’ve been told not to), then it might take a minute for an employee to regroup. Therefore, shorter meetings might be better, and not just for working parents. Change and process can take many forms – companies must innovate to keep talent at all levels. It’s important to create part-time, flexible, and job-sharing opportunities as well as easy onramps for when parents are ready to return to the workforce. 

LM: What have you done to promote gender equity? Do you think executives are more fruitful and perceptive when they value women and men as equal?

SL: Yes, it is imperative that workplaces value equality. Although, I think it is more nuanced than valuing men and women as equal. It necessitates defining equal. Having the same number of men and women in leadership might look equal but if there is a significant power imbalance between men and women then it may not be equal at all. We need to look at representation across multiple identities and with an intersectional lens. Having been committed to equity work throughout my career, I am often thinking about who is in the room, and more importantly who is not. I then ask myself how I can get more voices and perspectives represented. Whether it is teaching graduate students, consulting with organizations, or building programming models for professional women around the globe, I will continue to promote gender and racial equity in my work.

LM: Luminary has become a hub for passionate women looking to develop professionally and expand their networks. How have you approached its programming to support women and their careers?

SL: I knew that the programming would need to meet the needs of women who were working in companies, teaching, in between jobs, and those leading their own small businesses. I used my experience in facilitating and designing leadership programs to develop an innovative framework that is grounded in learning and community. One of my favorite sessions to facilitate is on storytelling.

Watching the transformation in just one session, participants see themselves differently and start to connect with one another resulting in people connecting to new opportunities and jobs. Using a collaborative approach that leverages partnerships to engage Luminary members, global thought leaders, and Fortune 500 companies, Luminary’s programming meets the needs of women who are upskilling, growing their businesses, and investing in their holistic wellness.