Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column for WRAL TechWire. It appears on Wednesdays. Thompson focuses on leadership, management, entrepreneurship and equality.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Last year’s rush into working from home caught almost all of us underprepared. As we pivoted our business models to survive as best we could, we didn’t have the necessary time to research and provide the best possible tools, methods, and systems for our teams. We learned as we went, we adapted to what we saw, and now, we can do better.

If your business is considering returning to the office or adopting a permanent hybrid model, it’s critical that you go back to the drawing board to create intentional work environments that are equitable, accessible and sustainable for both the business and your employees. 

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson

With the Great Resignation in full force, most of my executive colleagues are eager to offer and provide accommodations so they can retain their most-valued employees. But accessibility and equity aren’t only important because they improve employee retention. More importantly, they are ways of personalizing the employee experience to create deeper and more enduring relationships that lead to greater engagement, productivity, collaboration and innovation. 

Equity means making sure that your employees have what they need to be successful. As you shift your workplace policies, I encourage you to use this opportunity to build a more employee-focused, inclusive and equitable business culture. For more tips, check out this on-demand webinar from my team at The Diversity Movement, Back to Work: Strengthening Workplace Culture.

Encourage your team to name what they need

The easiest way to figure out what people need is to ask them. Consider conducting an organization-wide survey that asks all employees to specify which tools, policies and processes have been meaningful to them over the last year and what else they need to be highly successful. I suggest organizing this survey into physical tools like computers, desks or accessories, digital tools like subscriptions or software, and process changes like flexible work hours or recorded meetings. You might also think about offering a home office stipend for employees to use at their discretion. 

Provide physical accommodations

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to provide accessible physical spaces and tools for employees with disabilities. Most commonly, that means a screen reader, refreshable Braille display, accessible keyboard and computer screen, or ergonomic chair. The problem is, when companies go remote, many of those physical accommodations stay at the office. Make it a point to check in with your employees who have disabilities, and give them a dedicated pathway to request the accommodations they need to do great work from home.

Make every meeting fully accessible 

Every meeting, teleconference, and training session you have should be fully accessible to all employees, from announcement to follow-up, including meeting invitations, agendas, and presentation materials. The best advice on how to do that comes straight from the CDC. Although their recommendations are focused on employees with disabilities, these are good practices to follow for all your employees. Enable live captioning of all events, closed captioning of all visual materials, and send meeting materials with ample time for employees to digest information and prepare questions or responses. 

Offer training for remote work tools

It’s easy to assume that people know how to work with digital tools like Zoom, Google Docs, or Slack, but assuming can make your employees feel embarrassed and discourage them from asking for clarification about what they don’t know. Make sure to offer basic training for every digital tool that you use. One easy way to do that is to keep a single onboarding document with hyperlinks to training materials. Search for “quick start guide” plus the name of the software to find the best ones, and update that document frequently as your team engages with new software.

Slow down, and stay flexible

The pandemic isn’t over yet. People still need flexible work schedules and caring, compassionate leadership. Last July, when I first started writing this column, I wrote a piece called “It’s Ok not to be OK: Leading and succeeding in an era of uncertainty.” All these months later, the core of that article still feels relevant. “Business is a human-centered enterprise, and business success relies on the personal success of our teams. To weather this storm, we must prioritize coping strategies and mental health.” Sometimes, we have to go slow to go fast. We have to take the time to get things in order for our employees so they can deliver the high-quality work we’re expecting.

Returning to the office or committing to a permanent hybrid work environment is a wonderful chance to show your employees that you’ve been listening to and learning from them throughout this time. Building equity into your business will not only help you retain your best employees and attract top talent; it will also help you create a culture where people feel respected and encouraged to contribute consistently great work. 

About the Author

Donald Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, he is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture, and driving exponential growth. He is also co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a results-oriented, data-driven strategic partner for organization-wide culture change through diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Donald serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. His autobiography, “Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Journey to Success” will be available in 2022. Connect with Donald on LinkedIn and at donaldthompson.com