Current events are inspiring many of us to take a closer look at the concept of inclusivity, and more specifically, inclusivity in a virtual culture. As company culture drivers, we’re wanting to further educate ourselves on the topic from a variety of perspectives, so we hosted Thriver Roundtable: Inclusivity in a Virtual Culture to do just that.

We wanted a panelist who could speak to what diversity and belonging really mean in an organization, so we welcomed Diversity & Inclusion Consultant, Dave D’Oyen. D’Oyen has contributed to multiple advisory boards with a focus on anti-black racism, immigration, and health care systems. He’s sat on committees for race relations and people with disabilities, he’s worked with youth and family services, and has helped with police training. Consulting for Corus Entertainment and Shopify, D’Oyen brings a unique level of knowledge that helps companies understand the steps required to build a truly inclusive culture. 

We also wanted a different perspective on inclusive culture – specifically, the leadership perspective. So we welcomed Certified Leadership Coach, Natalie Dumond, who has over 15 years of experience in HR, organizational development, and leadership coaching in fast-paced startups, and was also a contributor on Brene Brown’s book, Dare to Lead. Dumond has a real passion for studying the skills required for effective leadership, and develops leaders by teaching them the skills of empathy, trust, vulnerability, and honesty.

Here are our top takeaways from this most fruitful discussion:

Diversity and inclusion are two different things, and the difference is worth noting. 

As D’Oyen puts in a nutshell: “Diversity is the range of human differences.” To better understand diversity he suggests companies learn about the ‘Diversity Wheel’. In 1990, Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener developed a framework for thinking about the different dimensions of diversity within individuals and institutions. These include inner dimensions such as age, race, and gender; ‘external dimensions’ such as marital status, work experience, and religion; and ‘organizational dimensions’ such as management status, work location, and seniority. This wheel can be used in myriad ways to examine the values and beliefs of your organization. 

“Inclusion is a feeling.” Unlike diversity, which can be measured by various dimensions of a company’s makeup, the concept of inclusion is really about fostering a sense of belonging in each individual. “Do you feel valued at your organization? Do you feel welcomed and comfortable? Do you feel like you belong?” As D’Oyen highlights, to ensure an inclusive work environment is to ensure that all of your employees are answering yes to these questions. 

People feel included when they see they’re represented.

To feel included, individuals need to see others within the organization who share similar experiences/traits. “You can detect this through representation,” says D’Oyen. “Rates of promotion – are you seeing people like you at every level? Rates of retention – who’s leaving and why? Rates of pay – are people being compensated fairly?” For employees to feel like a valued member of the team, they need to see others like them being treated the same way. 

Ensuring adequate representation in your organization starts with your recruitment processes. Do a deep dive on your outreach strategy, closely examine where and how you promote the career opportunities in your company, and be mindful of biases at every step of the process.

Leaders need to take a good look at themselves.

“As a leader, you have to understand who you are and what biases you hold,” says Dumond. “What are the opinions and energies you’re bringing into this organization? Do people feel safe to put their hands up?” Based on years of study, Dumond has learned that in order to be an effective leader and understand the type of culture you’re creating, you have to first be able to engage in this kind of self-reflection.

The next step leaders must take to foster inclusion is exhibiting empathy. “We screw it up all the time,” she says. Empathy is the practice of considering other people’s experiences to better understand their point of view. There are many techniques for practicing empathy, such as perspective taking – which is to honour what someone believes to be true; avoiding judgment – which is something a lot of people struggle with, but is an essential ingredient of empathy; and recognizing emotion – which allows you to convey a person’s emotion back to them and make a truly empathetic connection.  

You don’t have to be in the same room to keep morale high. 

“Leaders and teammates need to be constantly checking in,” says Dumond. “Isolation is a challenge and people feel disconnected, so stay curious and keep asking people what they need. This will look different for each team – some will want group chats, others will want one-on-ones. This has never happened before, so we need to invite people to be vulnerable and have the courage to speak up when they’re not okay.”

“This hasn’t happened before,” echoes D’Oyen, “And there is so much comfort and strength in discussing that. The habits we had pre-covid took years to build up, so we need to be patient and compassionate with ourselves. And leaders must keep checking in, to give people that space to reflect and express.”

You can foster an empathetic, inclusive work environment, even if that environment is more virtual than ever.

“COVID has given us a reason to pause and reflect on how we’re living, and how others are treated on the margins.” D’Oyen observes that the pandemic has caused society to think twice about issues like homelessness and proper housing, long-term care and our treatment of the elderly. It’s causing families to examine their conflict resolution styles and division of labour. And it’s causing company leaders to examine their employees’ needs in a more holistic way. 

Adjusting to a more virtual work environment marks an opportunity for company leaders to explore other aspects of inclusion and dimensions of diversity, such as personality traits (who among your team thrives or struggles in a remote work environment?) and geographic location (whose life is most affected by a long or stressful commute?).

“There’s a realness happening,” adds Dumond. “Sweatpants, no makeup, kids interrupting – people are trying to let go of their control, and it’s about having the courage to connect into that.” Leaders need to embrace a lack of control because they can no longer see people working at their desk all day. Leadership is about having that trust in people to stay productive and engaged. As Dumond says, it’s about having “less control, less micromanaging, and more realness.”

Inclusive culture is about empathetic leadership and voices being heard.

We asked our two panelists to share their most important piece of advice for fostering inclusive culture. With her focus on building strong culture from the top down, Dumond recommends companies “work heavily with leadership teams to ensure they’re self-aware, emotionally literate, curious, and vulnerable, so they can connect into their employees.” 

With all of his experience championing inclusivity in the workplace, D’Oyen reiterated the power of the check-in. “Keep talking to people. Host a listening tour or send out a climate survey. Ask how they’re doing, work on tailored solutions.” As far as he’s concerned, the most important step to fostering inclusion is, “Discussion, discussion, discussion.”

We’re super grateful to our panelists for such an insightful and necessary discussion about inclusivity in a virtual culture. For more inspiration on fostering inclusion, check out our recent blog post on employee engagement tools. To book a free consultation to discuss your culture needs, please don’t hesitate to reach out.