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In a recent LinkedIn post that quickly went viral, Carlie Bush, vice-president of HR at Global Medical Response, shared a story about an unexpected interruption to a virtual job interview she was conducting. The candidate’s young child woke up early from her nap, wanted her mother and so decided to join in.

Ms. Bush’s post speaks to how 2020 has changed working life for so many of us. With offices closing their doors, and the usual child-care options suddenly becoming unavailable, interviews and meetings by video chat and sometimes parenting off the side of your desk have become the norm.

Before COVID-19 hit Canada, just 10.9 per cent of Canadian businesses had at least half of their work force working remotely. At the end of March, that number had tripled. By the time lockdowns came into place across the country, 40 per cent of Canada’s working population were working from home.

As Canada’s labour force grapples with this new virtual reality, it’s understandable that efforts to build a culturally inclusive workplace might slide down the priority list. Yet, it’s now more important than ever that organizations keep up their inclusion work.

Intercultural competence is key

Research by the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) has found that cultural differences affect immigrants' experiences of the in-person workplace, from being hired to advancing to more senior roles. Is operating virtually a great equalizer, or does it only serve to highlight these differences? While immigrant employees no longer have to deal with lunchroom or water-cooler politics, they now find themselves navigating how to make small talk on Zoom.

Intercultural competence is a key tool in building an immigrant-inclusive workplace. The ability to recognize and bridge cultural differences can transform a diverse organization into an inclusive one. Being interculturally competent means being able to work effectively with people from different backgrounds, by appreciating that people have complex identities. It makes more sense to treat intercultural competence as a verb, rather than a noun, because it’s all about action. These actions benefit both employees and employers as positive experiences of inclusion at work have been linked to increased engagement, problem solving within teams, and innovation.

Start small

It can be hard to know how to start practising cultural competence in a virtual context, but there is advice out there. Much of this advice highlights that the lack of visual cues when interacting virtually can lead to misunderstandings and an erosion of trust for everybody. Recognizing culturally specific cues in an in-person environment can already be a challenge for recent immigrants. This challenge is compounded when body language is obscured, because all we see are heads and shoulders.

Meetings, which are the bane of our existence these days, require further intentional thought for all of us. Simple actions, like establishing rules of engagement for online meetings, or virtual open-door sessions, have been suggested to help the transition to the virtual world of work. Also, making time for teams to bond is another helpful suggestion. Lastly, some employees might relish the opportunity to build connection with their teammates on a video call. Others might need to turn their camera off sometimes, because they don’t have a dedicated office space and life is happening in the background.

Acting inclusively means recognizing that in the case of many recent immigrants, they may not have family close by, or a robust community of support. Acknowledging that child care might be more challenging (especially during a pandemic) and encouraging flexibility will be a demonstration of inclusivity.

Virtual humanity

Back to the story about the job interview. The reason it went viral was not because of the child interrupting, but because of the interviewer’s reaction as she continued the interview with the toddler sitting on her mom’s lap. “I could relate as a mom how stressful it was for her,” Ms. Bush wrote. “I … felt like sharing this and reminding fellow leaders how important it is to recognize the struggles people are facing and do what we can to be understanding and accommodating. Small kindnesses make a world of difference!”

Her words might not be specifically about culture, but they are about demonstrating humanity, and this lies at the heart of being culturally competent. Immigrant or not, all employees have different circumstances and the pandemic is affecting people in different ways. We can demonstrate kindness, inclusion and humanity in a virtual space, by acknowledging those differences and adapting in how we support our team members. Perhaps, then, working virtually has something to teach us about being more human.

Open this photo in gallery:

Adwoa K. Buahene is CEO of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC).Handout

Adwoa K. Buahene is chief executive officer of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council. She is the Leadership Lab columnist for October, 2020.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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