How To Build An Inclusive Work Environment In 2020

Inclusion isn’t just the ‘right’ thing to do, it delivers a wealth of benefits internally and for your customer base, too. So what do you need to know about building an inclusive workplace? And how do you assess where you are today?

We recently wrote about psychological safety, and how important it is for employees to feel able to be their “full selves” at work.

The argument being, that if a team member feels confident to speak their mind and step up to challenges, then this will support them in reaching their utmost potential.

But what about the confidence and freedom to simply be who they are?

In an inclusive workplace, every member of staff — regardless of job title, race, gender, age, sexuality, religious belief, family set-up, economic standing, physical difference, political affiliations, anything — feels a sense of belonging. 

What’s more, they can walk into work each day safe in the knowledge that their performance will be assessed only on what they bring to the organization — not on their identity or background.

And inclusivity benefits the entire organization, not just ‘minority’ groups. Because inclusion means creating a workplace environment that allows everyone to thrive.

Defining the ‘inclusive workplace’

The first thing to note is that diversity and inclusion are different. 

You could say that ‘diversity’ is concerned with the what — building varied, representative teams. Whilst ‘inclusion’ focuses on how to make that work. Inclusion is a measure of company culture. For example, organizations might work to meet an arbitrary diversity target, but if they don’t build an inclusive culture then their efforts will be in vain.

Next, there are some standout narratives concerning diversity and inclusion in the workplace, including the lack of female or ethnic representation at CEO level, whether in the UK or the US.

And these statistics are not to be down-played. In fact, they highlight the diversity issue in a way that’s difficult to ignore, with one piece of research claiming that, at the current rate of progress, FTSE 100 companies will not make their BAME board representation targets until 2066.

And, while that’s serious in itself, it’s what’s behind those targets that is even more important. An inclusive workplace is one which considers not only these headline-grabbing diversity challenges, but also the everyday experience of each member of staff.

Inclusivity is as much about having a workforce that represents the diversity of the general population, as it is about having measures in place to ensure that, once in the door, employees feel welcome, supported and heard.

This could mean having a flexi-hour approach for working moms, dads and carers. Or having adaptable HR policies, with remote working options and/or access enabled offices. Managers may choose to use “blind” recruitment to avoid inherent bias, or to host “town hall” style meetings where anyone — from any level of the organization — can share their voice. 

Inclusion can also be as simple as investing in team social events, in which everyone participates.

For inclusivity to become part of the very fabric of an organization, the entire organization needs to be shaped with diversity and inclusion in mind.

This means understanding the biases, groupthink and social psychology that risk undermining an inclusive company culture. 

It’s not easy, sure. And it will take time to master. But the pay-offs can be phenomenal...

The indisputable case for inclusion: stronger performance, better engagement and improved employee wellbeing overall

There’s little doubt that inclusivity creates a more positive work environment.

And some of the benefits may even surprise you.

In one outstanding study, analysts claim that inclusivity may be the secret to beating the next financial recession. According to the data, highly inclusive companies were more successful before, during and after the Great Recession, gaining a 4x higher stock return than less inclusive organizations.

So how does inclusivity deliver such incredible financial results?

If we break it down, the case becomes quite clear.

When feeling a sense of belonging and support, employees will be more engaged and motivated to perform. Organizations with inclusive cultures are 3x higher-performing, 6x more innovative and 8x more likely to achieve better business outcomes, says Deloitte.

And inclusion improves retention rates, too. In fact, employees who can “bring their whole selves to work” are also 42% less likely to look for a new job in the next year.

These numbers certainly help to explain how inclusion benefits the organization directly. But by making the workplace more welcoming and enjoyable for all staff, the business reaps rewards as well.

With inclusivity positively proportional to wellbeing, and happy employees creating happy customers, it’s safe to say that boosting inclusivity carries benefits across the board — for the bottom line and all stakeholders.

Is your workplace inclusive? 3 signs that there’s room for improvement

Despite the myriad of reasons why inclusivity should be a priority, many organizations are falling short of D&I standards and welcoming environments. Not necessarily because leaders don’t believe in an inclusive culture, but because it’s sometimes difficult to determine whether an organization is inclusive or not.

But in recognizing shortcomings, then measures and initiatives can be put in place to improve inclusivity — and performance, engagement and wellbeing as well.

The following three behaviors or characteristics tend to suggest a workplace has some way to go before it’s inclusive enough to see results.

  1. There’s a lack of flexibility in working hours and/or leave and other HR policies

As mentioned above, inclusivity relates to much more than gender or ethnicity. A workplace can be deemed inclusive, or not, by how flexible leaders and managers are in relation to employee needs.

Consider a working parent of young children. In an inclusive workplace, they would be offered flexible office hours in order to work around school pick-up and drop-offs. They may be permitted to drop to three or four days a week or work from home. At the very least, they should feel able to start this conversation without fear of it damaging performance assessment or chance of professional growth.

  1. Employees have few, or no, places to go to voice their thoughts or concerns

Community is an important aspect of inclusion in the workplace.

Team members need to know they can talk freely to colleagues they trust. Role models, mentors, action learning sets, employee representative groups and business forums are all useful ways to create a “speak up” environment

If your organization is lacking the above platforms, it’s quite likely you’ve got an inclusion issue on your hands. Without safe spaces to speak their truth, employees may start to feel excluded from the business at large.

An inclusive workplace is one which provides a range of ways to gather staff feedback, whether that’s one-to-one or through group discussions, formally, informally, or both. Then — and this is vital — don’t just listen. Respond.

Employees who feel heard are 4.6x more likely to live up to their full potential. Can you really afford to ignore what they are saying? 

  1. Your C-Suite or leadership come from similar backgrounds

Inclusivity and diversity starts at the top. 

And if the people leading your organization look, think, and act in a similar way, then this can be lethal for your business moving forward.

At best, “Groupthink” limits innovation, devalues independent thought and creates a culture of little accountability. At worst, it creates a sea of sameness that not even your customer base can relate to anymore — after all, your customers don’t all look, think and act the same, so nor should your workforce. 

Research shows that 75% of customers say they’re loyal to brands who reflect who they are. So if your team is too homogeneous, you’re missing a profitable opportunity to foster loyalty with a diverse audience.

A workplace inclusivity checklist — 5 things you can do to increase diversity and inclusion today


  1. Emphasize the business case for inclusion and diversity and get C-Suite buy-in. Inclusive organizations out-perform exclusive ones — the numbers speak for themselves and won’t be hard to sell. What may be more difficult, however, is convincing leaders that there’s an inclusion issue to be addressed. This may require additional coaching or training, to help them recognize how their unconscious biases can affect decision making in ways they may not even realize.
  1. … But remember to view diversity and inclusivity as more than a tick-box exercise. To create meaningful change, D&I initiatives need to be supported by every member of the team. This means providing full on-boarding, increasing awareness around inclusivity measures and initiatives and gathering on-going feedback from within the organization. It’s not enough to write up an inclusivity plan and make it easily accessible on the company’s intranet. Actions speak louder than words.
  1. Train leaders to be more inclusive. The most influential actions flow from the top down, and inclusive managers will build inclusive cultures in their teams. The ambassadors of company culture, leaders need to call out exclusive behavior when they see it in others — even their peers. Inclusivity is the responsibility of the whole team, but leaders are a great place to start.
  1. Be brave and admit to your conscious and unconscious biases. Biases are natural, and perhaps inevitable, but acting upon them is unacceptable. This is true for every member of the team, regardless of role or seniority. If you’re serious about instilling inclusivity in the workplace, task employees with taking the Harvard Business School Implicit Association Test — it’s not easy to open yourself up to this feedback, but once biases have been identified, then they can start to be controlled. 
  1. Use technology to foster connections between employees, regardless of position or location. In an increasingly digital workplace, more and more team members are working remotely, from home, or on the road. When your team is dispersed across the world, technology is the thing which will keep them together. Informal communication channels, like Slack, will help build team dynamics and bond members together, wherever they are. And Continuous Performance Software, like Duuoo’s, will enable managers to have a meaningful overview of who is doing what, where and how well.

Inclusion affects everyone. And if your organization hasn’t assessed, developed and rolled out an inclusivity program, then you’re already behind the curve.

Get it right, and an inclusive work environment will future-proof the success of your organization for years to come — empowering employees, increasing engagement and productivity, and better representing your customer base as well.

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