Innovation That Matters

Innovation Culture Bulletin: Driving diversity

Work & Lifestyle

We explore the importance of staff diversity, and suggest tips on how to improve and strengthen it so you can have a more balanced workforce.

“Nakedness has no color: this can come as news only to those who have never covered, or been covered by, another naked human being.” — James Baldwin

Regular readers of our Innovation Culture Bulletin will notice that the theme of employee autonomy runs through the series. Giving each member of staff options, be it to do with their schedules, the way they communicate, or the physical environment of their place of work, could have benefits not only for employee happiness, but also for business efficiency and the precipitation of new ideas. Social science suggests that harnessing diversity at work — just like in the natural world — can create benefits for all.

A recent study found that companies in the top quartile for gender or ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their industry average. Researchers behind the study believe that more diverse companies are more likely to win top talent, improve customer orientation, employee satisfaction and decision-making, all of which lead to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns.

But why? One major reason is because we simply feel more comfortable when we see other people that look like us. In a roundtable discussion with African-American female engineers working at Slack, Erica Baker talks about how important representation is for her: “I can’t know that a woman of color can be a senior vice president of engineering because there are none.” This underlying alienation can extend to negatively affect client relations, and make collaborations with other companies less comfortable.

But true “diversity” in the workplace should refer to more than physical attributes. Personalities, work experiences, and educational backgrounds can all make an employee feel out of place. An introverted art school grad in a fin-tech company, for example, who is great at design and aesthetics and an important asset to the company, may feel disconnected with his or her team if they all come from a different educational, social and work backgrounds. This can cause some to hide their (very valuable) unique feedback, or suppress what may be seen as left-field ideas, for the fear of seeming difficult or not working as a team.

So how can we make sure our team members feel empowered to express their individual opinions — something that is so key to innovation and the creation of new solutions? Our Innovation Culture Five this week has some suggestions.

1. Try new recruitment practices. Slack recently introduced the Rooney Rule, a principle that originated from the National Football League in 2003, which required teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior operations jobs. We have also seen a company, birthed out of MIT, introduce a policy that hires candidates with varying degrees of autism. The potential employees are taken through a special interview process that determines their tech skills but doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable.

2. Set goals and be transparent. Conduct employee surveys to take a closer look at the diversity in your company — who are the people in leadership roles? Is there an unexplained pay gap? Create public reports to have more transparency. Setting goals is often an important first step towards a more balanced workforce. Platforms like InHerSight could provide some suggestions on relevant areas to study and analyze.

3. Diversify your product testing. If a new product or campaign is on the way, make sure to have a wide range of test subjects. There’s nothing more embarrassing than facial recognition tech that doesn’t register dark skin tones because they have only been tested on white faces (yes, this actually happened.)

4. Pay attention to personalities. A couple of months back we wrote about ways to harness the more introverted or extroverted employees in your team. Although useful, platforms like Saberr, which uses personality analysis algorithms to suggest how well potential recruits will fit a team, may be counter-intuitive to diversity. Pay close attention to those who are minorities in their backgrounds and personalities, and try to accommodate their individuality so they feel more comfortable voicing their opinions.

5. Promote flexible working hours. Instead of hour-related targets, encourage flexible schedules and give merit according to performance. Having autonomy over their schedules is a key enabler for female employees, and has shown to reduce overheads, sick days and debilitation. What’s more, flexible timetables have benefits for employee productivity as well.

As always, here is our office-friendly Spotify playlist this month.