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Ideas Diversity is essential2021-09-08

Building a culture of belonging is at the heart of DEI

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The pandemic has introduced new and unique challenges for organisations, especially from a cultural standpoint. We spoke to five representatives from across Asia-Pacific at Essence for their perspectives on how organisations can build a sense of belonging as well as a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in current times.

Building a culture that not only promotes, but propagates DEI, goes hand in hand with inculcating a culture of belonging. DEI practices that are so often spoken about today cannot happen without employees first feeling a sense of belonging to where they work. In fact, a sense of belonging can act as a catalyst for DEI. Belonging sits at the heart and is an important step towards making DEI innately successful. Only when people feel that they belong, and valued and secure enough to be their authentic self, can they truly value and encourage diversity and inclusion.

Today, there is a dire need for a culture of belonging to be ingrained in day-to-day lives that transcend office walls, and not be constrained to office gatherings and community lunches. To seek out what a sense of belonging as well as a culture of DEI in the workplace could be like, we caught up with five representatives from Essence in the region:

  • Adam McNicholas, Associate Media Planning Director, Japan

  • Bona Shon, Media Activation Manager, Korea

  • Raymond Lagdameo, Senior Manager, Talent Development, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia 

  • Sajneet Kaur, Senior Client Services Manager, India

  • Yanjin Qu, Senior Client Services Director, China

In current times, what challenges are organisations facing in building a sense of belonging and what are you doing to help build such a culture?

Sajneet Kaur: Being away from a physical workplace, which has been core in fostering an organisation’s culture, can make one feel uprooted. A celebratory lunch after a big presentation, morning chai with teammates and invitations to the conference room, all contributed to making employees feel seen and included. Organisations need to ensure that employees don’t feel mentally distant in a socially distant environment and are encouraged today, more than ever, to be their authentic self in the comforts of their home, which is now also their workplace. 

Fostering a sense of belonging requires many building blocks. I believe small, everyday nudges can go a long way. At Essence, we have a practice of ‘shouting out’ colleagues and recognising them for their contributions. It’s a positive way to boost the team’s morale, and makes one feel supported and seen. Another small but effective practice at Essence in India is our weekly Friday get-togethers, where we cover nearly every topic under the sun and encourage everyone to contribute as their true self.

Bona Shon: It‘s been tougher connecting with team members since we started working remotely as a result of the pandemic. To resolve that, I set regular catch-ups with my whole team and individual members. 

In Korea, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) was a recent hot topic, helping people to understand different personalities and how to coexist with others. In our last meeting, we shared our MBTI types and had a great time learning more about one another beyond work. We got to know one another’s different and more human sides, which massively improved our team dynamics and ways of working. 

Yanjin Qu: We constantly ensure transparency with our teams and create opportunities for open discussion - we have regular internal meetings with senior leadership as well as ‘teatime talk' where everyone is able to share in a safe environment. We believe that the first and most important step to take is to listen.

To effect change, we need to ensure we follow through with next steps in a timely manner. At Essence in China, we continually review our office policies with our leadership, and invest in training and development programmes based on employee feedback. We organise team activities to engage with our people, and build relationships and camaraderie, creating not just a workplace but a community for them to share and grow with, and belong to.

Raymond Lagdameo: Leaders in teams need to put ‘belonging’ in their agenda - when working remotely, it’s far too easy to fall into having purely transactional conversations. Belonging can also be cultivated by having a strong organisational purpose. If you’re building towards something awesome, people will want to be part of it.

It’s important for leaders to set the tone within their teams. Our managing director in Singapore sets a really good example with breaking down hierarchy. Every month, she carves out time from her schedule to meet all our new joiners, regardless of their seniority, and personally welcomes them to Essence. That’s pretty cool. 

What challenges are organisations still facing in fostering a culture of DEI? 

Sajneet Kaur: While there’s a loud emphasis in organisations today to drive DEI initiatives, I believe that the focus on inclusion in a socially secluded environment is still underrepresented.

Raymond Lagdameo: Some workplaces are still quite hierarchical, while some individuals might just be innately less vocal. The vital element here is being heard. Even when there’s representation across all genders, ethnicities and identities, when voices are not being heard, then that representation falls flat on its face.

Yanjin Qu: DEI has different interpretations in different cultural contexts. In China, our society evolves rapidly, resulting in ‘generations’ forming every five years. Responding to the career needs of different generations from different backgrounds is a key challenge.

Bona Shon: In Korea, for organisations including non-locals, language barrier can be a challenge in fostering a culture of belonging. For example, even when bilingual speakers translate conversations from Korean to English, communication with non-local employees may not be at the same level as with locals.

Adam McNicholas: Typical Japanese work culture can be hierarchical, so employees may defer to the most senior person in the room. This sometimes leads to a lack of diversity in thought and team members may not feel like their perspectives are valued.

With our industry facing a talent crunch and talent movement, what can organisations do to create a welcoming and supportive environment?

Adam McNicholas: I think the talent crunch might actually be a net positive when it comes to DEI, as it could force organisations to expand their definition of the ‘right talent’ and consider people with different backgrounds, compared to those they considered in the past. To ensure new hires feel welcome, onboarding needs to go beyond handing off an employee handbook and setting up a couple of introduction meetings in the first week. 

At Essence in Japan, we have an onboarding ‘buddy’ programme which pairs a new starter with an experienced Essential who walks them through our processes and tools, and regularly meets with them during their first few months. With remote working, it can feel even more isolating to start at a new place, so having people dedicated to welcoming and supporting new members is critical in creating an inclusive environment.

For me, transferring from Essence’s New York to Tokyo office as a primarily English speaker seemed daunting at first, until I arrived in Japan and realised how diverse our office was with people from over 11 countries. Having people who could empathise with me and understand what I was experiencing really helped ease my concerns and made me feel supported.

Raymond Lagdameo: A clear commitment to helping people grow is important. People often leave an organisation because they get stuck in the grind and don’t see how they can continue growing there. While rapid backfilling of roles may fulfil the needs of organisations and their clients, the fundamental need of individuals to thrive may have yet to be met. Companies and managers need to have clear conversations on growth and opportunities. Empathy and patience need to come through more clearly, especially since remote working and hybrid work arrangements are becoming the norm. 

Yanjin Qu: Team atmosphere is a key element in creating a supportive work environment. Leaders and team members should sincerely recognise one another for their hard work and accomplishments, and be there for one another to solve problems together when things aren’t going well. 

Sajneet Kaur: When one believes that their personal values and aspirations align with that of their organisation, they can begin to look at their work as more than a task at hand. Having social communities and interest groups that connect individuals beyond the realm of their day-to-day work can instil a sense of trust and belonging, and make employees feel supported.

Bona Shon: At Essence, what I feel really helps is when we regularly share our mission and vision with employees. Newcomers participate in a welcome session on ‘The Essence of Essence’, where they learn about our company history, our leadership, the tools we use and our culture. We also have voluntary groups which employees can join, such as Pirates (culture champions), Womxn, Parents, Pride and Global Citizenship. Nevertheless, the most important part is that we walk the talk and are inclusive ourselves.

What more can organisations do to cultivate a culture of belonging in order to propagate DEI?

Adam McNicholas: I think the first step to building an inclusive culture in an organisation is having open conversations on the subject with employees and listening. Whether it takes the shape of meetings, surveys or one-on-one feedback, this will make everyone feel like they are part of the process, and give the organisation valuable information to base their DEI goals on. Without a good grasp of the current state of the employee experience, it’s not possible to effectively improve it. Once the shortcomings and blindspots have been identified, a plan of action can be built, but not before then.

Bona Shon: We need to be more open in considering a candidate’s cultural fit with an organisation, beyond their capabilities. A culture of belonging is not built within a day, but having honest conversations will help accelerate it. Sincere conversations build trust, and with trust, people start to feel like they are cared for, and ultimately, belong.

Raymond Lagdameo: Setting diversity goals and measuring where the company stands when it comes to diversity can be a powerful reality check. Having guardrails in place, such as ensuring there’s representation in hiring panels and focus groups, can prevent outcomes from being skewed. At Essence, we share and review our diversity goals with the entire company regularly to ensure transparency with our employees and that our goals are top of mind.

The creation of clear DEI-related roles will also help move things faster. I think DEI is on everyone’s minds, but most people have too many things on their plates to meaningfully drive important change. 

Sajneet Kaur: As an avid traveller, I look at diversity as the practice of getting a visa, inclusion as being invited to local events and belonging as being treated like a local. To cultivate a culture of belonging, employees need to feel proud of their organisation and relate to its mission, in other words, feel like a local in a country. This can be achieved through regular company meetings that recognise the great work done by teams, and the progress towards the company’s mission and shared vision. Taking time to highlight success stories on belonging by hearing from different employees is a powerful way to influence people’s sense of belonging. Finally, encouraging leaders to be inclusive and communicative is crucial. A simple but sincere “how are you?” can go a long way in helping people feel like they belong, especially in present times.

This article was originally published in Campaign Asia-Pacific, and is part of a content series on diversity, equity and inclusion for Women to Watch 2021, created in partnership with Essence.