Posted: 21 May 2020 5 min. read

Faces of COVID-19 - A Cultural Perspective

“This opportunity (to learn about cultural diversity) could have been missed….... I want this to be a trigger for other leaders to not be afraid to ask questions and be curious about other people’s cultures”.

Between 23 April and 23 May, Muslims have been observing Ramadan, a period of fasting as well as worship and charity. With Mosques closed, and many people sheltering at home during COVID-19, Ramadan 2020 proved to be a different experience to Ramadan 2019.  In our conversation with Tehreem Amin (Graduate,  Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority ), we learn about her experiences of observing Ramadan during COVID-19 and for Suzanne Smith, (Executive Director,  Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority) the importance of leaders deliberately seeking to understand the unique cultural experiences of employees.


(Image: Tehreem Amin, Graduate,  Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority)

Q: Mosques are shut, and you have been living at home with your parents, husband and 3 siblings during COVID-19, what has it been like observing Ramadan this year? Have there been unexpected challenges or benefits?

Tehreem: Usually in Ramadan, the whole family goes out at night for communal prayer. Given that the mosques are shut, we had the opportunity to do this together at home. One of the big benefits that’s come out of COVID-19, has been our family being able to pray and break fast together (each night)- something we haven’t ever done before. With everyone’s work routines, it was basically impossible for us to all sit down at the dining table and eat together as a family. Now, for thirty consecutive days, we’ve all been able to sit down, break fast and pray together afterwards. Having less time spent commuting also means we’ve had more time to engage in acts of the workshop and learning about our religion.

There have been some challenges too. One of the biggest things is the loss of community, which is probably something everyone is feeling, but for Muslims during Ramadan, the night prayers happen and it’s strongly recommended that everyone join in. All families come together and meet in the mosques – and it’s an amalgamation of cultures. I live in the Hills, and everyone from the area – Egyptians, Pakistanis, Indians – come together in worship. Every single night you’ll see these people. It’s something you look forward to. But that’s not happened this year, so that’s been a big challenge. While connecting with my family has been a big positive, you also lose that connection to the broader community.

Q: Suzanne, you first learnt about Tehreem’s experience when she shared her story with you as input into your general weekly newsletter, which sought to profile her experience as a new graduate at APRA. You weren’t expecting her to tell you about Ramadan, so how did that make you feel?

Suzanne: I write a weekly note that goes to the Superannuation division, and more broadly across APRA. As part of that, I try to showcase ‘getting to know’ the team. One of the groups I was concerned about were our new grads – they’d only joined us a few weeks prior to COVID-19 hitting, and I thought it must be hard working from home if they didn’t know anyone. Seeking to build some connection amongst the team, I reached out to our three grads – Tehreem being one of them – and asked them to tell us their stories. I was just expecting a standard introduction to the team…

When I read Tehreem’s story and saw the beautiful photo she shared of her family praying together (in their loungeroom) – I thought, “Wow”. I was so excited, and I didn’t expect that level of sharing. While I never initially reached out to Tehreem in relation to her cultural experience – her response reminded me of the importance of bringing your whole self to work. And it takes courage to do that. In fact, Tehreem was initially a bit reluctant to share the photo and she thought we might cut out the cultural aspect to her story - which broke my heart because I thought that was the best part.

As a leader, I was quite naive in not reaching out during this time to support our people across all different cultures. I think perhaps I was a bit fearful to ask about people’s cultural experience because I thought, “Is that intrusive?”, “How would I ask about it?,” “Is it the wrong thing to do?”. If I was feeling like that, there are probably others who are also hesitant to ask these questions of their colleagues.

It was Tehreem’s bravery in sharing that helped educate me and create the mindset for me to get out of my bubble. It was like a circuit breaker or pivot point to stop and reflect on what else is going on around us beyond what’s the immediate front of mind.

Q: Many people are curious about other’s cultures, but don’t want to ask questions that might offend. What’s your advice?

Tehreem: I think there are two aspects to this. Firstly, people from different cultures aren’t expecting others to know everything about their culture. When you do know something, it makes us really happy – and when you don’t know something – we aren’t offended because it gives us a chance to share. In most cases, we would love to share.

Generally, people have this fear of the unknown. You can be hesitant to ask about cultures you’re unfamiliar with – but it’s asking those questions that get you more comfortable - with both the culture and the people. Ultimately when you know more about people and their culture, you are less apprehensive and scared.

The onus is really on both parties – both to ask and answer the questions. I think it’s important to start with broader questions, so you can then judge how comfortable the other person is in sharing about their life. As one of the first generations to come into the workforce as a minority culture, I feel I have an onus to share as much as I’m comfortable with. I think it’s everyone’s own limit to set.

Q: How has the virtual environment enabled you to/inhibited you from sharing?

Tehreem: If someone had asked me “what’s your graduate experience?” in a pre-COVID setting, I may not have had the courage to step outside the box and include the detail of my cultural experience. I think the screen we sit behind acts as a barrier, and it allowed me to be much more comfortable in sharing my experience. As Suzanne mentioned, I was a little hesitant to include this, but I thought “even if they do reject it, it’s not to my face, it will just be edited out”.

We’re using these screens more than ever, and I think there’s an opportunity there to ask people to share more. Like me, people might feel more comfortable and empowered to share their stories from the comfort of their own home.

Q: Suzanne, hearing about Tehreem’s experience in sharing her about herself, what does it bring up for you as a leader?

Suzanne: Firstly, it made me realise how much I didn’t know about Ramadan. Secondly, it made me realise the importance of creating opportunities for people to share. The onus is on leaders to help facilitate that.

It’s important to be less fearful of creating connection and asking questions about things that make people unique. As leaders, we have to find the courage to know how to ask questions that enable us to create a more inclusive environment, as opposed to doing nothing because we don’t know how to take that step. As part of my goal to build my cultural intelligence and be a more inclusive leader, I know it’s on me to get better at asking these types of questions – and I would encourage others to do the same.

I know I can learn more about being Muslim from Tehreem in half an hour than I could by trying to researching and learn about it on the internet.

Q: In some ways, we are all living in our personal COVID-19 bubbles, what are the insights you will take forward into recovery?

Suzanne: For me, it’s about being mindful of the shadow I can cast on APRA, by sharing my experience with other leaders and providing more opportunities to create awareness of what an inclusive environment looks like. This has been a timely reminder to reset and think differently. Not everyone may be as courageous as Tehreem to share their story – and that’s why it’s so important to share and increase awareness, to create an easier road in future for our people to bring their full selves to work.

Q: What lessons or experiences do you want to take forward as life becomes a ‘new normal’?

Tehreem: Going forward, I think we’ll just have to find a middle ground. Maybe it’s about having conversations at work around cultural preferences. With working from home becoming ‘the new normal’, I’d like to think that next year in Ramadan, I could work remotely to create the opportunity to again connect with my family during this time. Having an open dialogue is the only way for leaders to understand the different needs that are starting to bubble up for people.

More about the author

Juliet Bourke

Juliet Bourke

Partner, Consulting

Juliet leads Deloitte Australia's Diversity and Inclusion Consulting practice and co-leads the Leadership practice. She has over 25 years' experience in human capital, management and law. Juliet works with Executives and global organisations to improve workplace performance through cultural change, focussing on D&I, leadership and culture. Her latest book, the acclaimed ‘Which two heads are better than one?: How diverse teams create breakthrough ideas and make smarter decisions’, helps leaders understand how to systematically create diverse thinking and take team performance to the next level. Juliet is a member of the Australian firm’s Diversity Council, and sits on a number of boards and award panels, such as the Telstra Business Awards, Harvard’s Women’s Leadership Board, Navy’s Diversity Council and Macquarie University’s Global MBA Board. Juliet’s own awards include Women Lawyers Association of NSW (Achievement Award), University of NSW (Alumni Award) and Centre for Leadership for Women. A highly engaging public speaker, Juliet has keynoted at hundreds of global conferences, including TEDx.

Sarah Sgroi

Sarah Sgroi

Consultant, Consulting

Sarah is a Consultant in Deloitte’s Human Capital Consulting practice. With a background in Psychology, Marketing and HR Management, she has a passion for solving complex client problems with people-centric solutions. Sarah is diligent in applying rigour and structure to problem solving. Combined with her strong interpersonal and communication skills, she is able to engage meaningfully with clients to deliver high quality solutions. With cross-industry experience, Sarah’s consulting background has predominantly focused on strategic transformation, change management, and diversity and inclusion, with Financial Services and Public Sector clients.