We can only be creative if we are diverse and new technology is making it easier than ever for employers to break down barriers at work.
Introduction: an individual approach
In order to achieve a more inclusive working future, we need to break down barriers at work for everybody. Too often when employers consider action to support disabled people in work, or others in lower participation groups, they find ‘one size fits all’ solutions for different groups. Instead, we need to embed processes and attitudes that encourage employers and managers to work with their staff to identify the barriers and together identify the right solutions.
There are groups that tend to face more barriers than most in the workplace. Disabled people tend to be right at the top of this list. But people with disabilities are not one homogenous group. A new ramp or a hearing loop, while useful for those with mobility or hearing impairments,, will not remove barriers for an employee on the autism spectrum, for example. Therefore, people with disabilities have the most to gain from a management approach that looks to work with all individuals to remove barriers to work.
New technologies make it easier than ever for employers to adopt more inclusive practices. The increasing availability and affordability of software allows employers to interrupt entrenched attitudes and processes and challenge unconscious biases. Innovative employers are making full use of the new technologies available to increase diversity.
The importance of diversity
As the world of work changes, there is a pressing need for people and organisations to be creative. Economists and futurists looking at the future of work, such as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, frequently refer to the need for creative skills as technology and automated systems replace routine tasks. The individuals and organisations that will thrive in the new economy, they say, will be those that are able to embrace creativity.
At the BBC, we are taking the creativity challenge seriously. Our vision is to be the most creative organisation in the world. We think the best way to become more creative is to increase the number of different ideas colliding together. And the best way of increasing the number of different ideas colliding is to make sure there is more diversity amongst the people generating those ideas. So if somebody was excluded from our workplace, because of their disability, race, gender, age or other characteristic, we would be reducing our ability to come up with new ideas and remain relevant to our audience..
The research clearly shows that inclusive organisations outperform non-inclusive organisations. Businesses with diverse workforces tend to be more profitable, more relevant and better at problem solving. And so given the benefits provided by an inclusive approach, why would organisations want to cut off whole groups of potential talent by not making their workplaces accessible?
How innovative employers break down barriers
I have identified four steps that innovative employers take to break down barriers at work to increase diversity and creativity at work.
Diversity can’t just be a bolt on, it needs to be hard wired into an organisation. Too often diversity and inclusion practices are seen as an optional extra, or as something the HR team must deal with alone. In fact, the most innovative organisations recognise that an inclusive approach to employment needs to come right from the top.
At the BBC, our commitment to diversity and inclusion is a priority for the Director-General. Tony Hall launched our ambitious strategy earlier this year, calling for the BBC to lead the industry in diversity and inclusion. Support from the top can help to change attitudes in the organisation, and puts diversity at the heart of the organisation’s mission — something that everybody should be working towards at all times.
Not all barriers to work can be found on a big checklist. Of course employers need to make sure they get the basics right. For example, all workplaces should be physically accessible, and flexible working practices should be made available to all employees and highlighted to potential candidates. But the best employers are able to work with their staff to quickly identify new and personal barriers and address them as they come up.
A useful way of thinking about inclusivity is to ‘think global, act local’. This phrase was popularised by the environmental movement as a way of acknowledging that a large number of people making small changes locally can lead to global change. But this is also useful from an inclusivity perspective as we can only remove barriers at a national or even global level only by understanding the barriers and needs of every individual in our workplaces.
In order to be able to truly understand the barriers faced by all employees, organisations need to establish strategies not only to get the basics right, but also to deal with more complex needs and barriers. To get this right, managers need to have the training, confidence and tools to be able to ask individuals a simple question, “what do you need to be your best self at work?”
Too often people think creating an inclusive workplace is purely physical, but as important as this is, it isn’t all about building ramps and adapting spaces. Some of the biggest barriers can be attitudinal. Unconscious bias is a systemic barrier that runs through workplaces all over the country. Too often managers are only too happy to hire in their own image and drift towards comfort zones of familiarity. For people with disabilities, or those with protected characteristics, this can put up a major barrier to employment at workplaces where unconscious bias goes unchallenged.
The trouble with unconscious bias is that it happens naturally — we’re hardwired to seek out threats and without the right training and support, we can often misinterpret difference as a threat. But this sort of thinking is fatal for diversity and inclusion. So we need to confront and interrupt unconscious bias, particularly at times of high pressure such as hiring new employees, or during redundancy procedures.
Thankfully, new technology makes it much easier to interrupt bias. Online tools like Textio and Gap Jumpers allow organisations to adjust their recruitment processes to maximise diversity by widening their talent pool. The BBC has recently piloted a no-CV recruitment process by shortlisting candidates objectively with an anonymous skills based task. This “blind auditioning” process isn’t a new idea as judges asked musicians to audition behind a screen to redress the gender imbalance in orchestras in the 1930’s. We’ve just found a technological bias pattern interrupter fit for the 21st century. As a result, there has been a threefold increase in the number of people from ethnic minorities selected for interview.
Flexible working is now commonplace in many workplaces, partly thanks to the right to request flexible working, but also due to modernising working practice. More and more employers are recognising that flexible working practices can allow their employees to flourish.
As well as flexibility on working hours, innovative employers are also increasingly redesigning their physical spaces. With technology and greater connectivity making remote working a possibility for more and more organisations, many employers are creating more flexible working spaces. This creates greater accessibility, but also reflects changing attitudes at work in which people tend to value flexibility more highly.
Again, new technology means adjustments are easier to identify and make. For example, Clear Company provides an interface for employers to ask all employees to request adjustments in a mainstreamed way — this might be changes to working hours, physical adjustments to the working space or new software or equipment.
Following my four steps will help employers to unlock diversity and creativity in their workplaces. Those employers that fail to address the physical and attitudinal barriers in their workplaces will increasingly find it difficult to fill skills gaps as their talent pool remains shallow. And while the increasing use of technology at work increases the need for flexibility, new online platforms are also putting pressure on employers to be inclusive.
New online tools like Glassdoor are giving employees more information than ever about potential employers. The website lets current and former employees rate and write about their employers for the world to see. It means that those organisations that are genuinely inclusive will be easy to find for potential employees. And it also means that non-inclusive employers can be flagged up. With the rise of social media, employers that are failing to address barriers reported by their employees are running a serious reputational risk.
In this new world of work, it is more important than ever that employers open themselves up to the full array of talent in the labour market. Innovative organisations recognise that they need to be flexible and accessible, and that they need to support everybody that works for them to realise their full potential. The organisations that will thrive in the future world of work will be those that can embrace diversity, and therefore unleash creativity.
This essay was also published in the Fabian Society An Inclusive Future report: http://www.fabians.org.uk/publications/an-inclusive-future/