Technological advancement and globalisation has opened up unlimited opportunities and transformed the dynamics of the workplace. Meetings can now happen virtually with employees based in multiple locations. Organisations can operate across different continents and time zones. Team members are increasingly diverse with various linguistic fluency, geographical understanding and cultural capabilities. As such, organisations face new challenges. One of which is how can organisations cultivate inclusivity in our increasingly virtual world?
With the added challenge of the nature of virtual teams, cultivating a culture of inclusion is even more crucial in leveraging diverse perspectives, talents and strengths. However, the work of fostering the desired culture within an organisation is challenging and complex. In essence, to develop a culture of inclusion, you need to understand inclusion, identify the barriers and take proactive steps in fostering inclusion in your organisation. This is not a one-time effort. Cultivating inclusion means everyone needs to embody the actions, speech, thoughts and decisions with the lens of inclusion.
What Does Inclusion Mean?
As the world's economies shift towards the 4th Industrial Revolution and a growing middle-class population globally, we see greater diversity in our workplaces and customer base. In this article, diversity includes various dimensions, such as ethnicity, religion, gender, education, socioeconomic status, and age. Research by BCG1 found that "Companies with above-average total diversity had both 19% higher innovation revenues and 9% higher EBIT margins, on average."
Technology and globalisation provide many opportunities to hire talents from different geographical locations and for talents to work from anywhere in the world. A survey by Global Workplace Analytics2 indicates that remote work has grown 91% over the last ten years and 159% over the previous 12 years.
An inclusive culture in the workplace means that everyone is recognised, empowered and involved. People will contribute their diverse talents and perspectives when allowed to express their different values, beliefs, and ways of life. People want to be respected and appreciated. An inclusive culture means that organisations need to advocate, promote and sustain a sense of belonging continuously.
What Are The Barriers to Inclusion on a Virtual Team?
Despite its many benefits, organisations fail to harness these differences. Organisations' focus on demographic composition and spotted campaigns are ineffective. Before diving into the methods of how to foster an inclusive workplace, we'll explore three significant barriers to inclusion.
Barrier #1: There's just no time to make inclusion work.
People may perceive inclusion work as time-wasting and not task-focused. People might feel frustrated and impatient in lengthy brainstorming sessions, in hearing the opinions of everyone on the team, in delaying tasks because something was discovered. Time spent in including others might mean taking time away from achieving KPIs or revenue targets.
The price is high when you don't make inclusion work. For example, a team member has insights into a customer's unique needs but is overlooked by others because such information does not conform with the established norm or the organisation's vision. Eventually, the changes needed do not occur, and the organisation may lose the loyalty of a particular group of customers.
Barrier #2: People aren't sure precisely what inclusion is.
If one has not experienced inclusion in their entire life, it is hard to imagine an inclusive workplace. Sometimes, we are so entrenched in our culture that it's hard to see it in any other way. In a culture with a lack of inclusion, different people might become targets of criticism, discrimination or even bullying. And yet, nothing is done because "That is the way it is."
Barrier #3: We're not convinced that inclusion benefits.
An organisation might attribute their success to the homogeneity of the group. Because they are the same age, gender and race, they work well together. Homogeneity could also extend to the way people think and behave, even though their age, gender and racial profile might differ. In the extreme, this leads to groupthink.
Groupthink3 means that
a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the discouragement of dissent.
An organisation that relies on homogeneity and groupthink will often lead to poor decision making, lacking creativity and the ability to adapt to fast-changing times.
Three Approaches to Foster Inclusion
The work of inclusion requires consistent effort from everyone. While there are many ways to foster inclusion, practising the three approaches below will help you in the long term.
Practice Inclusive Conversations
When leaders encourage and support conversations about diversity, team members can express their unique values and background. Over time, members' sense of safety and belongingness within the group strengthens.
Along with conversations about diversity, leaders and members need to practice inclusivity. Inclusivity in a conversation means allowing everyone the equal opportunity to ask and answer questions, express their thoughts and feelings, and contribute their unique value and strengths. Leaders and their followers need to model inclusive conversations by demonstrating active listening, asking meaningful questions, having an open and curious mind, and appreciating diversity.
There is the added challenge of logistics and the lack of cultural and environmental context on a virtual team. As such, inclusive conversations need to be deliberate and cannot be a serendipitous "water cooler" conversation as in an office. We need to leverage the most effective communication channel to allow multi-way discussions, such as a video conference call, group chat, or a scheduled offsite event.
It is not an easy conversation to practice. With patience and persistence, inclusive conversations can become the foundation of cultivating an inclusive culture.
Encourage Others To Share Their Perspective.
For the culture of inclusivity to flourish, members must feel comfortable, free, and safe in speaking up, asking questions, and sharing new ideas. This sense of freedom to be authentic can only happen when there is psychological safety in the team. Based on Google's landmark Aristotle Project 4, psychological safety is the number 1 key dynamic in making great teams successful.
A team with low psychological safety will continuously feel anxious and stressed that their speech, actions, and even thoughts go against the established norm and be penalised for it. In a low psychological safety environment, alternative ideas or perspectives are often met with resistance, sarcasm, criticism, and humiliation. Eventually, the sense of recognition, empowerment and involvement will be reduced and diminished. Low psychological safety erodes team cohesion and teamwork.
However, suppose a team cultivates high psychological safety. In that case, new ideas, perspectives and opinions will be responded with a sense of curiosity, openness to learn and support.
In a virtual team, fostering psychological safety and encouraging members to speak up has an added layer of complexity. Each team member may understand the lingua franca differently and cannot effectively decipher non-verbal messaging via emails, text chat, phone calls and unstable video conferencing connections. As such, misinterpretation, misunderstanding and conflict may arise. As a virtual team leader, you need to be aware of when such incidences occur and take immediate steps to resolve them.
Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. Amy Edmonson
Appreciate Each Other's Unique Value
When members feel like they are an essential part of the team, they feel a great sense of belonging. The need for belonging is an inherent human desire. The primal need to belong has helped humanity to survive millennia. For true belonging to happen, every team member will need to feel safe and free to express their authentic self and be appreciated.
In a virtual team, showing up authentically is a challenge because of varying technological literacy, the stability of the internet connection and even fluency in the lingua franca. Increased awareness is required to recognise and acknowledge the value of each individual. When members speak up about their concerns or share their perspectives, remember to appreciate their contribution, acknowledge their courage, and reflect upon the value and strengths demonstrated.
This form of appreciation is not often done; neither is it easy. A small change in how you appreciate others can have a massive impact. With deliberate and persistent practice in your daily conversations, eventually showing appreciation can become second nature.
True belonging is the spiritual practise of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn't require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are. Brené Brown
Fostering a culture of inclusion in your virtual team can be challenging. It requires one to understand the meaning, purpose as well as benefits. It also requires one to identify barriers and the consistent effort in cultivating inclusive speech and behaviours within the virtual team. As with any culture change, the price is high, but the rewards are significant. In the long term, it will benefit the organisation and change the lives of your people.
1. Lorenzo, R., & Reeves, M. (2018, January 30). How and Where Diversity Drives Financial Performance. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/01/how-and-where-diversity-drives-financial-performance
2. Global Workplace Analytics. (2020). Global Work-from-Home Experience Survey Report. Global Workplace Analytics. https://globalworkplaceanalytics.com/whitepapers
3. Psychology Today. (n.d.). Groupthink. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/groupthink
4. Google re:Work. (n.d.). Guide: Understand team effectiveness. Re:Work. https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/