I admit back in my college years, I was not part of the popular crowd, to say the least. I was a fledgling college student from Turkey—a foreigner attending a Connecticut university, and someone who preferred the company of his books to frequenting campus parties. Naturally, cliques formed in class. The geeks and nerds to one side, and the “cool kids” to the other. You can easily guess where I fell on this spectrum.
While I ended up making lifelong friends during that time, I’ll never forget how alienated I felt from the rest of my classmates. Which is why, many years later in 2005, when I founded my company, I vowed to create a different culture to the one I experienced in college. One that wasn’t divided by tightly knit groups or made people feel like outsiders. “No cliques” became our mantra. Everything was going according to that vision—that is, until 2020 hit.
Fast forward to today, and we’re facing a new challenge when it comes to workplace social dynamics: how can we make sure our workers who stay remote aren’t left out? More importantly, how can we ensure an environment that doesn’t make them feel like second-class citizens during a return to work?
It’s normal for people to gravitate to those who understand them and share common work locations, but there are ways leaders can deter cliques from forming. Here are four strategies to foster a more inclusive environment:
Keep in mind inclusion trickles downs
For every clique that forms, I believe there’s a gap in leadership. Meaning, someone at the top is endorsing a culture of exclusivity, either through their word or action.
Say for example, you tell your team that you value everyone’s input equally, but then spend the bulk of your time with your in-person staff. You’re indirectly showing favoritism, and giving those at the office the upper hand.
When leaders exclude certain workers, they create an atmosphere that is inhospitable to anyone who doesn’t follow “the rules” of your workplace. All the more reason to make sure you’re spending a balanced amount of time with all your employees.
Checking your impact can help you gauge whether your behavior is in line with your words. Is your in-person staff collaborating with their remote peers? How are people copying your role-modeling? Juliet Bourke and Andrea Titus at Harvard Business Review advise that “scheduling regular check-ins with members of your team to ask how you can make them feel more included also sends the message.
“Inclusive leadership is not about occasional grand gestures, but regular, smaller-scale comments and actions,” they write.
One of the surprisingly positive outcomes to emerge from last year had to do with the remote team-building activities we relied on to stay connected. One that’s become a favorite is our weekly “demo day” on Fridays, where teams showcase projects they’ve been collaborating on. The more outlandish and playful, the better.
Activities like the above promote inclusion between in-person employees and remote staff. It’s also easy to maintain in the long-term. According to The Muse writer Alyse Kalish, organizing a Hack Day for your team can be another effective solution. “The idea is simple: Have everyone drop what they’re working on and spend the day completing a special project that benefits the team or company,” she writes. “If you can, have multiple departments, if not the whole company, participate and require employees to work with people on different teams.” In this case, you can assemble employees that are both in-person and remote to work together, in order to accommodate your entire staff.
Keep it personal
Forming one-on-one connections with each employee is one of your best guards against cliques. At its essence, groups like these form when people don’t feel safe or valued. Acknowledging team members as individuals, researchers Bourke and Titus note, can be a way of illustrating inclusion.
As a leader with over 300 employees, I make it a point to learn team members’ names and the work that they do. In doing so, I create an atmosphere of trust, because I let each employee know that I validate and support them. “It takes energy and deliberate effort to create an inclusive culture,” the researchers explain, “and that starts with leaders paying much more attention to what they say and do on a daily basis and making adjustments as necessary.”
Share a common vision
“Purpose is the backbone of a strong culture,” writes Inc. contributor Joe Galvin. “It binds people working together, in all capacities, to realize rewards beyond financial performance.”
As leaders, it’s on us to create a motivation that fosters connection. A compelling vision can help employees feel more engaged and like they’re an important part of that story. It also ensures that your team has shared values to create a more collaborative culture. Ultimately, preventing workplace cliques comes down to giving people a sense of direction and acknowledging that the work they do matters—regardless of where they are.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of Jotform, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, Jotform allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.