Creating a Virtual Culture of Inclusivity

Jan 28

By Jason Richmond, Founder, Ideal Outcomes, Inc.

As we move forward into 2022, the lingering impact of the pandemic is something that affects every one of us in our personal and professional lives. In the context of the workplace, among the casualties of the events of the last two years are employee satisfaction, engagement, and a true sense of attachment and belonging to an organization.

Recent research into this area found that companies that experienced layoffs and furloughs experienced a 91% decline in employee Net Promoter Score, a 57% increase in disengagement, and a 42% increase in a tense workplace atmosphere.

Rebuilding a positive and inclusive work environment is set to be an uphill battle, given that the full-scale reopening of the post-pandemic world is still a way off, and virtual/remote working arrangements are likely to be here long-term

The question now arises, "Will the current disruption and upheaval stall or erode the progress that's been made in recent years to foster greater levels of cultural diversity and inclusion in our modern workplace? Are businesses going to place such initiatives on the back burner while they grapple with issues like skills shortages and virtual workplace enablement?"

At Ideal Outcomes, our view is that those organizations that keep workplace diversity and inclusion high on the business agenda will emerge as winners in the struggle to repair and reinvigorate their employee experience.

In this article, we'll explore why building an inclusive environment matters now more than ever and consider some practical steps to success on this front.

What Is an Inclusive Workplace Culture?

Traditionally, the concept of "inclusivity" has pivoted around establishing a workforce that includes a range of ages, genders, ethnicities, and religious and world views. A truly "inclusive" organization has been understood as a place where people feel welcomed, appreciated, and respected for who they are. They're empowered to do their best work and are given equal opportunities for advancement.

But now, with virtual work firmly entrenched as the norm, how has this paradigm changed?

Some argue that rather than setting inclusivity efforts back, the increase in virtual working presents an opportunity to advance the inclusivity agenda. Here's how:

A person's physical location, gender, physical attributes or disability, and personal circumstances matter less in a predominantly virtual workplace environment.

In commentary following the recent Davos Agenda, it was asserted that in virtual environments, "Organizations will benefit from diverse new talent pools from previously underrepresented groups. From mothers nursing their infants to people with physical or psychological challenges, no one needs to be excluded from a virtual workplace."

Why Should You Build an Inclusive Workplace Culture?

The benefits of creating a culture of inclusivity are well-established. But let's focus on two areas of particular relevance given the current business and economic climate.

Employee Retention

The "Great Resignation" has battered companies across all industries, and many organizations continue to struggle to attract and retain good people. Just consider these figures:
  • Hiring declined sharply for a second straight month in December 2021, with a mere 199,000 jobs added.

  • According to the Labor Department, the unemployment rate fell to 3.9% from 4.2% the prior month. That's just above the 50-year low of 3.5% reached in February 2020.
Talent has never been scarcer, and with abundant job opportunities there for the taking, employees can afford to be selective about where they choose to work. And it's well-accepted that people who feel that they work for an inclusive company where they feel appreciated are less likely to look for employment elsewhere.

Profitability

Then there's the business' bottom line to consider. Research from McKinsey shows that greater diversity in the workforce translates into greater profitability and value creation for the organization:

  • Companies in the top quartile in terms of gender diversity are 21 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile.

  • Organizations in the top quartile for ethnic diversity at the executive level are 33 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile.

3 Ways to Create an Inclusive Culture in the Virtual Workplace

1. Provide the Correct Digital Technologies and Enabling Tools

When the pandemic struck, many businesses had to scramble (almost overnight) to enable a fully remote workplace – something that, for most, their existing corporate infrastructures were never designed to support. To simply "keep the lights on," some ended up cobbling together a rather disjointed set of technology and tools to allow for productivity and business continuity during the initial crisis.

While employees enjoy the flexibility and freedom of remote work, at the same time, many feel somewhat disconnected and isolated. A study conducted by Microsoft shone the light on this dichotomy. Over 70% of workers surveyed said they wanted flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65% craved more in-person time with their teams.

To foster a sense of greater inclusivity in the virtual workplace, businesses have a responsibility to invest in the appropriate digital communication and collaboration tools to ensure their people can have the best of both worlds.

This goes further than simply providing laptops and Wi-Fi. It extends to issues such as being sensitive to any physical challenges employees might have, for example, providing ergonomic chairs to pregnant women or arranging special control interfaces for employees who might be unable to use conventional keyboards.

2. Create Fun Employee Wellness Forums and Clubs

As human beings, we were never designed to sit hunched on a chair staring into a computer screen for eight-plus hours a day. When in-office working was the norm, people had the opportunity to get up and stretch their legs, take a stroll to the cafeteria or coffee area for an informal chat with their colleagues, or pop out during their lunch break to do a few errands.

Virtual working can take a toll on people's mental health and physical well-being. Extended lockdowns saw many of us essentially housebound for months. People stopped going to the gym and engaging in other forms of healthy physical activity. Some may have begun engaging in unhealthy habits such as overeating or overindulging in alcohol in response to stress and loneliness.

So, why not look at ways to turn these circumstances into opportunities? Setting up initiatives to promote healthier habits is a great way to get people from all walks of life and backgrounds experiencing similar health and wellness challenges to connect and support one another. Perhaps look at establishing forums where people looking to get fit through walking or trying to lose a few pounds can share their experiences and progress and offer mutual encouragement and support. Or maybe host a virtual "healthy lunch" event once a week where your employees can share their favorite recipes or cooking ideas.

3. Reimagine your Feedback and Support Mechanisms

Responsible employers have always appreciated the importance of regular and meaningful bi-directional communication between management and employees. However, given the degree of physical separation that remote work introduces, if you're a manager, you might want to relook at the nature and cadence of your interactions with your team.

An approach that relies solely on regular weekly team meetings and annual performance appraisals might not be fit for purpose in the new workplace dynamic.

Are some members of your team struggling with bereavement? Maybe others are battling to juggle their day jobs with their home commitments, ending up burning the midnight oil too often to try to catch up.

If you believe this might be the case, consider upping the frequency of your personal check-ins with your team. One idea is to make a point of sending an instant message, or better still, picking up the phone and calling one of your team members every day just to ask, "How are you doing today?"

Today, leaders who oversee virtual teams need to find creative ways to build a culture of inclusivity that makes everyone feel truly appreciated and part of the team.

If you'd like to talk to one of Ideal Outcomes' culture consulting experts about building a culture of connection, equality, and inclusivity, please get in touch.