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Cultivating Inclusive Virtual Teams

Posted by on April 30, 2020 in Books, Conscious Living, Thrive with 0 Comments

By Dr. Tiffany Jana and Dr. Michael Baran


Subtle acts of exclusion (SAEs), previously known as “microaggressions”, are passive statements or acts of oppression. Everyone is susceptible to them, and nearly everyone has initiated one. Much like unconscious bias, no one is immune to subtle acts of exclusion. The tricky thing with subtle acts of exclusion is that they seem small, almost insignificant. Yet their impact is lasting and can cause long-term internal damage, as well continue the systemic cycle of oppression through stereotyping, assumptions and outdated ideas of realities. 


In the wake of COVID-19 many employers are shifting to remote working policies. While these efforts are commendable, and extremely important, virtual workplaces can be a breeding ground for SAEs. It is paramount to the success of any organization to continue fostering a sense of inclusion and maintain accountability, even without the face-to-face interaction. Subtle acts of exclusion thrive in online worlds where you can hide your face or name from those that you’re interacting with. In order to maintain a sense of community, culture and inclusion, we need to be self-monitoring our unconscious bias and continuing our education, now more than ever. 


SAEs come from stereotyping and assuming. In the virtual work space, this could look something like assuming employees with children have enough room in their home to work without interruption. Even though the reality is many single-family living spaces don’t have spare rooms where we can lock ourselves away to work. Along those same lines, many parents are without childcare during this pandemic, so they’re trying to balance providing childcare while also meeting deadlines. Having flexible work hours and offering more than one timeframe for meetings or check-ins allows parents to still be there for their children while maintaining a healthy work mentality.


It’s difficult to navigate this new virtual working landscape, but it is doable. It requires open communication, respect and inclusion. With communication and meetings now being held through messaging software, email or phone, it’s important to uphold the same workplace respect as you would in person. 


Now, I’m well aware that we’re all adults and wouldn’t behave in a disrespectful or oppressive manner purposefully; but that’s the tricky part of SAEs — they can fly under the radar. In these trying times, it’s important to communicate within an organization in a way that makes all feel included and up to date on what’s going on, both inside and outside of the organization. 


In our book, Subtle Acts of Exclusion, we give you clear ways to communicate effectively and respectfully. In order to understand, acknowledge and prevent microaggressions, you need to know what to look for, and why you need to look for them. Our taxonomy is built with no blame or shame; like I said, everyone has bias and everyone has committed a microaggression. There’s no point in blaming. Instead, we want to shift the conversation to sympathy and education. This book is the first step to self-correction and evolving, which is paramount to the success of an organization’s remote working policy. 


Be mindful of who you are, or aren’t, inviting to virtual meetings. When working virtually it’s nearly impossible for members of an organization to know what’s going on/what meetings are being held, so self-advocating becomes difficult. And while leaving someone out of a meeting may not be intentional, it sends the message that the person isn’t wanted, which is an SAE. 


Along those same lines, use caution and an inclusive eye when sending out mass emails to your employees. Even if the email has good intention, if you use subtle acts of exclusion you can lose your audience or isolate people. For example, if you start an email with, “Hey guys!” you’re leaving out multiple gender identities and saying that “guys” (males) are the default/generic normal. Intentionally harmful? No, probably not. But does it make some women and gender non-conforming people cringe and feel unseen? Absolutely.


Don’t let subtle acts of exclusion set back your diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. This is an unprecedented time for all of us, which means we’re in greater need of community and belonging than ever before. Together, we will get through this. And together we will be stronger.  

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DR. TIFFANY JANA is the CEO of TMI Portfolio, a collection of companies working to advance inclusive workplaces. TMI Consulting, a TMI Portfolio company, is a 2018 Best for the World B Corporation. Jana is also the coauthor of Overcoming Bias and the second edition of the B Corp Handbook.

DR. MICHAEL BARAN is a social scientist, and senior partner and digital solutions lead at inQUEST Consulting. He has taught at Harvard University and worked as a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research.

Their new book, Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify and Stop Microaggressions (BK, March 10, 2020), offers a pathway to a more inclusive, respectful society. Learn more at

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