I have a theory that communication and collaboration tools can reduce unconscious bias and increase inclusion in the workplace.
Twenty-plus years ago, before the internet was democratized and made available to everyone, we used to meet face-to-face or experience long delays in getting a response to our ideas. I have been working long enough to remember a time when I used to actually send faxes or courier floppy disks, and when email was nothing close to instantaneous. In that same time frame, most workplaces didn’t feature much diversity across questions of gender, ethnicity and more.
Fast forward to today, where the landscape is totally different. We all expect instant communication with people all over the world. In the broadest sense, social media and the technology that supports it have helped us begin to communicate just as easily with people many time zones away as we do with people sitting next door. And thanks to globalization, even workplaces that have not become more diverse by design face greater diversity than ever among their stakeholders and clients and within the general ecosystem.
As an active participant in and creator of online community, I see the potential (and the reality!) for online communication to erase a lot of our unconscious biases and leave room to connect at a human level. Social media and technology have opened up the opportunity for underrepresented voices to be heard in the public sphere exponentially more than in past decades. We’ve seen unprecedented collaboration and connection on social media platforms in ways that have hugely benefited society, from international relief efforts to crowdfunded medical procedures to visibility for niche artists and musicians.
I’m not saying there are no problems. We’ve all heard about issues with trolling, harassment and more on social media platforms. As well, it’s becoming clear that public opinion can be manipulated through the use of fake news, fake profiles and more. Social media platforms urgently need to deal with these troubling issues.
I think that by using unified communication and collaboration (UCC) tools, today’s diverse workplaces can harness much of the positive power of social media for their internal networks while avoiding many of the pitfalls of public platforms. Fortunately, the workplace is a somewhat more controlled environment than the vast public forum that is social media more broadly. Of course people can and will continue to judge each other based on their avatars, but unlike the wider internet, a workplace setting places us in touch on a more human level with shared goals.
Beyond the general convenience and efficiency aspects of UCC, I think this technology can help people connect across the difference that comes with greater diversity. In so doing, I think UCC can pave the way for better relationships and higher productivity as we move toward even greater workplace diversity in the future.
Of course, we’ve got to handle some human challenges to get the most out of UCC.
A brief history of silos
Unfortunately there is no clear linear relationship between using collaboration tools and seeing the benefits of workplace diversity. Every human being has unconscious biases, and technology is not set up to attenuate them. Organizations are facing the same challenges as the internet is these days: the echo chamber effect, or what we call silos.
In business culture, silos refer to departments or teams not willing to share information with others in the same company. They can create competition, which isn’t a good thing when you’re trying to work in the spirit of collaboration. Competition in the workplace makes it less likely for co-workers or teams to want to work together. Instead of focusing on their mutual goals, the focus is on personal success. You can imagine how this attitude does not help people connect across elements of workplace diversity.
As Gillian Teet put it in her book The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers, “Computers do not automatically remove silos from our lives. Far from it. The sheer volume of digital data that now exists in our system forces us to constantly keep creating new systems to organize data, which inevitably forces us—or more accurately, prompts computers—to put information into specific buckets.”
However, she goes on to say that the beauty of computers is that they are not born with indelible mental biases. “They can be programmed to rearrange information in different ways.” In other words, it’s up to us to use these tools for good.
Many organizations believe that technology alone will solve their culture of silos. Collaboration tools are introduced to independent workers on their own computers to promote the idea of working together, but nothing changes. Why? Because tools only work when we use them the right way. We have to have a vision. We have to innovate.
When we get creative, technology can help us break down silos for good.
How do we use technology, and UCC in particular, to celebrate differences and avoid bias in the workplace? Having created many successful communities for various clients as well as myself I have noticed that our view of other people is very related to our own experience and background. We all get along better with people from the same groups we belong to. The good news is that humans have a lot more in common than just gender and race.
We must create an environment where we can get along just as well with people from different groups as with people who resemble us. We can do this, in part, by finding the common ground we share outside traditional categories and workplace hierarchies. I believe this is where the real power of collaboration tools can provide tremendous benefits.
We need collaboration tools that no longer blindly follow default organizational structures. Imagine, for instance, having a tool that helps you get to know your co-worker John. Just click on John’s profile and you could discover that he is a member of the IT group, a member of the diversity group and a member of the soccer group. By having such features in today’s tools, we would be able to easily relate to John as there is more opportunity to find common ground, rather than seeing him as just the IT guy because that’s what it says in the company’s organizational chart.
I’m giving this as one example, but this is not the only cue that workplaces can take from social media and adapt to internal UCC. Every workplace needs to think about how they can best use today’s incredible technology to foster real human connection and break down the barriers of difference.
True collaboration fosters diversity and inclusion.
I strongly believe that to foster diversity, we must get beyond the idea that a collaboration tool should be used only for better communication in the sense of sharing files or working on a project. The best collaboration tools are customized to teams and organizations so that people can deepen relationships, learn about each other, compare ideas, find compromises and firmly lay the cornerstones for the future of the workplace.
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