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What an Inclusive Workplace Should Actually Look Like

25 March 2019 , by Jomiro Eming

Research shows that people who feel excluded at work are more likely to underperform or resign. This is particularly true in the tech space, where demand outstrips supply and software engineers have plenty of opportunities elsewhere. As a result, workplace inclusivity is not just essential in creating high-performance environments where people feel valued, but is also a question of retaining highly talented team members. Zimkhita Buwa lives and breathes inclusivity in the tech space, and has some practical tips on where to start and why.


Britehouse COO, Zimkhita Buwa, is deeply invested in and passionate about workplace inclusivity in the tech space: She has learned a lot through championing a host of tech inclusivity initiatives, such as SiliconCape's Students & Careers and Women portfolios, Techpearls, and Britehouse's own grad programme, and knows what it's like to feel excluded. These are some of the lessons she's gathered along the way.

Why should company members care about workplace inclusivity at all?

A lot of the younger talent that's coming into the market now isn't just looking for a high salary; they're looking for a space that can celebrate the value that they bring into the workplace. If you don't have an inclusive workplace, you might be able to hire those people,but how are you going to retain them?

The argument will still be: "But we've always done things this way." But the new workforce that you're engaging with expects you to focus on purpose just as much as on profit. They expect cross-functional teams, and they expect you to care about creating safe spaces for them.

The kind of creativity and ideas that you get from people of different backgrounds, different cultures, different way of thinking, different ways of working, is mind blowing.

If you don't want to be disrupted by the market, if you want to innovate, and if you want to remain sustainable, you're silly to not consider an inclusive workplace.

With that said, what should an inclusive workplace actually look like?

A misconception I've seen in most of the environments that I've worked in is that an inclusive workplace strategy is owned by the HR team. I truly believe that it needs to be owned by leadership, and then needs to be executed by everyone in the organisation. You have to be intentional, and invest in it.

I also don't think it's something that lives in strategy maps and annual reports. I think it's something that you feel as an employee when you walk into a work environment that accepts you for who you are.

In the same way leaders are obsessed around "their bottom line" and their "profits", that's how obsessed we need to be about an inclusive culture.

Quite simply, from an employee's perspective, it's feeling like you're seen, you're heard, your voice matters, and that leadership is taking your thoughts seriously. I've felt the other side of that, and it's demoralising.

For a company, it's firstly about recognising that you do - and always will - have different people from different cultures working with you. Then, I think it's about accepting and celebrating the different backgrounds that you have, and creating a space that allows for people to confidently and comfortably own the fact that they're different.

From your experience, what have been the most effective ways to make workplaces more inclusive?

First-of-all, if we're not thinking about it on a daily basis, if it isn't top-of-mind all the time, and we aren't waking up feeling like "Let's actually do something about it!", then, to me, it will always be ineffective.

It also has to be authentic: It has to be something you implement all the time, and across your entire company, not just in one or two areas. We don't profess to have all the answers, but we do know it is an essential conversation to be having in the boardroom, in order to set our company up for success.

Here are some examples:

Invest in leadership first

As I mentioned earlier, inclusivity starts with leadership; a solid investment into an organisation's leaders is crucial. It's not easy to deal with people from different backgrounds, and it's not something that's going to happen on its own.

Leadership has to be intentional, but it has to be supported.

We've invested into a tailored leadership training programme for the past five years: Our CEO sat for weeks crafting the programme to what Britehouse needed, so that our leaders, team leads, and managers could implement its value into their immediate roles. They focused on making sure the leaders knew what our culture needs to be, what our values are, what our essence is that makes us unique in the market, and how we should make each other feel.

It's a hard one, but how I approach it is for people to see me living the values that I'm expecting them to embrace. If they see me having an open door policy, it's not just "something on a slide deck"; it's that I'm here in the kitchen chatting to everyone, walking the floors, and asking people how they are. I genuinely care about how their daughters are doing at school, and that makes a huge difference.

If you're not engaging, if you're not caring, if you're not living the value itself, then I don't know how else you expect other people to buy into it.

Make people feel welcomed

On the very first day that people join, we clear our schedules for a new joiner breakfast, where the CEO and some of the other team members sit together with all the new joiners. We want them to feel welcome, and like they're part of the team to the point where the most senior person in the organisation will make absolutely sure that he or she is there. It's so important that they get that sense from day one: "Wow. I feel important. I feel valued."

We're also busy trying an onboarding app, so that when new hires start, there's already things about Britehouse's culture and mission they can read, and familiar faces they can recognise. By the time we meet the new hires in person, they'll hopefully say "Oh, I saw your face on the app! You've done this, this, and this!"

These things, to me, already create this element of "We're excited you're coming!" After-all, they chose to work for you, and you have to show them that you're excited they did.

Make people feel understood

We run regular online surveys which people can answer anonymously, just to understand whether our employees really think and feel like we're an inclusive workplace. We ask things around "Do you feel comfortable?", "Do you have a space where you can air your concerns?", "Do you feel like your input is being listened to and discussed?" and "Are your day-to-day needs being met?" These are also run by an external party, to keep things very objective, so we only get the analysis of the results. But it helps inform how we think about inclusivity in our workplace and whether we're doing it effectively enough.

Then we also run one-on-one, in-person forums, where people come and talk to committee representatives from within the company about how they feel within their teams, how they feel within the organisation, and what things we should be doing or looking at, for example. It's an avenue to share ideas or concerns, and to show that we care about the well-being of the people who work with us.

For very specific concerns that need more immediate attention, we've set up internal committees for certain portfolios, made up of people from Britehouse. For example, we have a remuneration committee that evaluates all the new hires and looks at salaries, just to make sure that they're in line with the rest of the organisation. There's also a diversity and inclusion committee, that looks at issues relating solely to diversity and inclusion across our organisation. It's just more avenues people can take, and gives them as many platforms to raise certain issues as possible.

Show people that their voices matter

Monthly "Connect" sessions are another way we drive inclusivity: Myself, the CEO, and a group of about 30-40 people in the organisation - whoever wants to come and be part of the discussion - will come together for an open, honest conversation around what we should be doing more of. We note the feedback, take it to board meetings, and discuss those ideas. Then, we close the feedback loop by communicating how we reached our decisions. And that feedback loop is so important.

It's one thing that you create an environment where people can share their thoughts, but you also have to act. You need to provide a platform where people aren't only sharing their thoughts, but where their input can truly be considered and included in the strategy - and be told why it isn't, when it isn't.

What can we do to address inclusivity not only at an organisational level, but within the tech industry as a whole?

There's another conversation to be had around the tech industry. The number of women that are studying computer science, that then don't actually make it into the industry, is likely because they don't see the industry as a whole as being inclusive - not necessarily only one or two companies. And then there's diversity in religion, in age, and in gender as well.

I think the industry is missing a critical ingredient by not having a governing body that actually looks at these things. Just like we have BBBEE, we should have a diversity and inclusion index in South Africa that looks at what IT companies are doing to make sure their work environments are inclusive. We need advocacy and we need visibility in order to have some kind of accountability that we can hold companies to.

More importantly though, we need to ask who is speaking on behalf of the younger generation? When people talk about the 4th Industrial Revolution, it's not lead by the people that need to be buying into this 4th Industrial Revolution movement. It's the young innovators and women that should be doing that - not the older generation - so why are we not putting them on stage?

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