Inclusion in a global business context is about ensuring that everyone feels valued and supported in their environment so that each individual, team, and organization can reach their full potential. If you don’t already know about the advantages of practicing inclusion, it plays a crucial role in fostering engagement, retention, and innovation. This ultimately creates stronger interpersonal relationships and greater productivity.

Meanwhile, as many of us struggle to adjust to changes brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, it can be easy to lose sight of inclusion and its potential value for virtual teams. In reality, however, acts of inclusion are even more important in a virtual workplace. By nature, virtual teams lack the in-person feedback necessary to stay connected and foster strong intercultural communication. Add the higher levels of stress and anxiety during the pandemic, and virtual teamwork can be quite a challenge. But practicing inclusion—especially during such an uncertain time—will help employees combat those negative feelings, foster engagement, and bring teams together.

In other words, inclusion may be just what we all need to overcome the challenges of working remotely so we can all be effective virtual team members now and in the future.

As Virtual Teams Members Face Common Challenges, Workplace Dynamics May Shift

Much of the higher levels of stress and anxiety we’re facing during the pandemic are due to logistical challenges, like adjusting to working from home, not having a private workspace, trying to keep children entertained, and caring for elder or sick relatives. In turn, staying focused and engaged in our work often becomes more difficult.

Plus, there is greater fusion of our personal and professional lives than before. Through video conferences, many of us are meeting our colleagues’ loved ones or seeing their homes for the first time. This means we are learning more personal—and even intimate—information about our colleagues, and perhaps seeing them in a new light. For example, I noticed during a virtual staff meeting that a colleague had a cross hanging on the wall behind them. Although I had known that they were Catholic, it was the first time I saw a personal expression of their religious identity. In the same meeting, another colleague’s child came to sit on their lap and say hello to everyone on the call.

Though these interactions are small examples of how our personal and professional lives may mesh in response to new virtual work dynamics, you may notice the overlap in more subtle ways, too. Our team leader, for instance, makes a point of asking if anyone has anything they’d like to share at end of each meeting. Many of us have increasingly started sharing hopeful or funny news stories and our latest recommendations for TV shows and movies, which has in some ways helped me feel more personally connected to my coworkers than before the pandemic.

How Do You Practice Inclusion In A Virtual Work Environment?

Although coworkers may have different backgrounds or family situations, facing the challenges of adjusting to virtual teams together can help put you and your entire team in a better position to understand and support each other through inclusive practices. For example, learning about my team members on a more personal level and including personal touches in our virtual meetings have had a noticeably positive impact on my professional relationships and my feelings about work. As I’ve mentioned before, there is a positive correlation between inclusion and productivity.

But in order to practice—and benefit from—inclusion, it’s critically important to recognize the diversity of each team member and consider your role in helping them feel included. This is of course different for each person and each team, depending on the combinations of identities, styles, and backgrounds present.

For example, it’s important to recognize that the impact of COVID-19 intersects with race and socioeconomic background, so try to be sensitive to the differing experiences of each person in staying safe and healthy during stressful times. One simple best practice is to not make jokes relating to these issues. Even if you have good intentions, your comments will probably not have a positive impact.

Another way of adopting inclusive behaviors is to start having “curiosity conversations.” Curiosity conversations are pretty much what they sound like—discussions that are sparked by your curiosity and interest in getting to know someone better. This can be a great way to learn about another facet of diversity, such as the food or customs of a team member from another culture.

Curiosity conversations can also help you recognize what you have in common with your teammates. This might be a shared interest, like reggaetón music, or it might be a shared life experience. For example, if you and another colleague both have young children at home, you might start a conversation with them about how they manage their schedule or keep their children busy throughout the day. In the case of my colleague with the cross hanging in their household, I’ve learned that they take an active part in volunteering for their local church, and their faith plays an important role in their everyday life.

The more time you invest in educating yourself about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, the better. In addition to having curiosity conversations, it’s also valuable to seek out and/or offer training on implicit bias, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and effective intercultural communication on virtual teams.

As personal and professional lives become more intertwined because of the pandemic, the value of inclusion and ensuring that employees feel engaged on their virtual teams will only continue to grow. Frankly, given the current circumstances, we could probably all use some extra TLC anyway!