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Inclusion, Isolation, & Identity: Accepting Our Professional Pandemic Selves

It’s winter in the Midwest. It’s dark, cold, and more isolating than ever as we fumble through the peaks and valleys of the pandemic. At a time when connectedness and inclusion are more critical than ever, achieving any semblance of them can often feel out of reach — especially for those of us living alone and working remotely, and even more so for individuals in marginalized communities. So how do we help foster a sense of connectedness and inclusion for all from the other end of a computer screen?

First, we must acknowledge that our sense of identity has been and continues to be deeply threatened by the pandemic. Many social psychologists have emphasized the importance of understanding and appreciating our different roles and identities when it comes to connection and integration. When we are unable to feed these roles and identities like we did before, our understanding of who we are and our place in the world erodes. For those of us who belong to minority groups, identity threat can be even more detrimental since community often translates into both physical and psychological safety. In fact, research shows that Covid-19 has had a greater negative affect on people in diverse groups, including women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people of color, both in the workplace and with balancing work and home life.

In a professional setting, connection and integration within a team or organization can suffer even more when we are only able to experience our colleagues’ professional identities, instead of the wide range of characteristics, interests, and skills that make up who they are as whole human beings. We no longer have the luxury of water cooler chats, coffee breaks with colleagues, or organic, impromptu, in-person happy hours. Creating and maintaining deeper relationships with our colleagues continues to be a challenge as we burn out on Zoom happy hours and hangouts, but there are other ways to safely connect. Reach out in way that feels natural to you — chances are, if happy hour wasn’t your thing when you were in the office, it’s probably not going to be your thing from behind a computer screen, either. A quick ping to your colleague asking how their weekend was or how their new puppy is doing can go a long way. Making a point to share challenging or proud moments can also foster connection, particularly when these moments are non-work related. Sharing these types of moments can help us recognize shared experiences. Joint anxieties and responsibilities tend to surface, and shift our perceptions of our own humanity and what we have in common with others.

Recognizing shared experiences, and fostering connection and integration in a professional setting are particularly important for marginalized people because they are more likely to experience micro-aggressions at work, and advance more slowly in their careers than their majority counterparts. It’s common for these individuals to say they have felt uncomfortable discussing identity-related topics in the workplace. According to McKinsey, 37% of LGBTQ+ survey respondents said they have had an uncomfortable experience coming out (meaning sharing their LGBTQ+ identity) to colleagues, and almost half of racial or ethnic minority respondents said they have felt at least slightly uncomfortable when discussing identity-related issues at work. A similar share of nonminority, non-LGBTQ+ women said the same about discussing gender. Notably, many respondents across the board reported avoiding talking about these topics when they would have liked to, largely because they were unsure how colleagues would respond, or they didn’t want to seem different. Further research demonstrates that feeling unable to speak openly or share ideas with team members and peers without a risk of judgment or ridicule can hinder an individual’s experience of inclusion and their performance.

*Chart from McKinsey

Feeling different translates to the idea of otherness and is central to how our identities are created. Social identities reflect the way individuals and groups internalize established social constructs that they experience in the world, like their cultural or ethnic identities, gender identities, age identities, and so on. These constructs shape our ideas about who we think we are, how we are seen by others, and the groups to which we belong. In fact, social identities are inherently relational — groups typically define themselves in relation to others. This is because identity has little meaning without the “other.” As we continue to ride the waves of the pandemic, this sense of otherness is proving to be amplified.

To mitigate feelings of isolation, disconnection, and otherness, be willing to participate in difficult conversations when it is safe to do so, whether your colleague comes to you with a project gone awry, you muster up the courage to talk to your manager about the level of stress and burnout you’re experiencing (along with some proposed solutions), or someone trusts you enough to share an experience of discrimination of feelings of otherness. The willingness to empathetically partake in difficult conversations fosters connection. The ability to take someone else’s perspective, stay out of judgement, recognize emotions in other people and communicate about them can be extremely powerful.

At the risk of sounding cliché, remember that we are all in this together. Despite increased feelings of isolation, our individual narratives still often highlight similar experiences and shared emotions. As the pandemic persists, workers across demographic groups and geographies report a remarkably similar set of challenges related to missing a sense of connectivity and belonging with colleagues, along with challenges around mental health, work–life balance, workplace health and safety, and concerns about job opportunities. While there’s no easy answer on how to counteract these challenges, sharing stories can help increase empathy, raise tolerance, and ultimately foster a sense of connection within teams. When people take the time to time to share, discuss, reflect upon, and affirm the story or experience that’s been shared, we feel included — and isolation doesn’t feel so lonely.

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