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How to build an inclusive work culture

Building an inclusive work culture isn’t just a corporate trend right now–it’s one of the most effective things you can do to create a healthy, productive environment and a strong company brand. Many leaders have made inclusivity a strategic goal, and here at TJN, we’ve covered many of the dos and don’ts of strengthening your culture. However, implementing inclusivity can be a major challenge for organizations of all sizes, and it can be easy to let the best intentions get mired in status quo frustration. If you’ve committed to building not just a strong culture, but also one where everyone feels they truly belong, there are steps you can start taking now.

What does true inclusivity look like?

One common mistake many organizations make is conflating “diversity” and “inclusivity.” Diversity means bringing in people from different races, religions, genders, etc. Inclusivity means making sure they all feel included, supported, and validated as members of the team. According to recent studies, including those done by the Harvard Business Review and McKinsey, employees who felt stronger senses of belonging rated their companies higher.

Inclusive work culture is not just about recruiting and hiring different people, but about creating an environment where all employees can thrive. In an inclusive work environment, employees feel like they’re recognized for their own skills and the work they do; feel connected to coworkers as part of a team with shared goals; supported by managers and executives in the work they do; and proud of the company’s achievements and values.

An inclusive work environment supports employees at every level by making sure that people have the facilities and tools they need to work, ensuring everyone is seen and heard, and being accountable.

Create a culture of accountability

“Inclusivity” stops being a buzzword and starts being a reality when it becomes a core value of the organization. This means setting diversity and inclusion goals and measuring progress. Some organizations tie these diversity and inclusion goals to bonuses or other incentives to help ensure that progress is prioritized.

Being more inclusive also means taking a close look at the existing leadership structure, and identifying where people of color and people with different social perspectives could contribute at a senior level. Institutional barriers are very real, and the status quo can be intimidating for those who don’t already have a seat at the table.   

Leaders and managers have the power to model inclusive behavior for everyone else. Leaders who are responsive, respectful, and appreciative of all team members are the best ambassadors for a healthier, more inclusive culture. Employees who feel supported and empowered to do their best work are more productive, and more likely to respond to their colleagues in kind.

Use the “new normal” to find ways to be more inclusive

For many organizations, the pandemic changed how and where work is done. At this point, some companies are back to in-person work, others have all but eliminated the traditional office, and others are working on kind of a hybrid model. No matter what your company is doing, it’s a chance to re-evaluate whether the system you have in place is truly inclusive, or if it’s just a “good enough” solution that supports some, but not all.

For example, people with physical disabilities or limitations often need accommodations like working from home or digital tools that allowed for visual or hearing accessibility. And many struggled to get those accommodations through their workplaces, which were prioritizing able-bodied employees as “the norm”–consciously or not. When everyone started working from home and having meetings via videoconference, suddenly those tools and arrangements were normal across the board. Does your organization provide accessible options as a matter of course for all employees, or are there barriers to those who might need extra physical accommodations? When you consider how employees use company-wide programs or tools, are any groups left out? Do some employees have less access to wifi, computer equipment, etc.? It’s important to think about who might be marginalized without leaders even realizing it.

Get feedback from everyone

Especially in large organizations, it can seem much more manageable to create small committees to tackle things like diversity and inclusion, because the idea of getting everyone involved can feel chaotic or overwhelming. In reality, you need to hear from everyone in order to make sure you’re not leaving anyone behind. Surveys, check-in meetings with managers and reports, and the chance to offer free feedback about their needs at work, and how the company is doing at meeting them.

It’s also important to encourage open communication and feedback between employees as well, not just between management and employees. Everyone feels more supported if the people around them trust and value the work they’re doing. Honest feedback coming and going helps everyone improve problem areas, solve issues, and work together better. It shouldn’t be a free-for-all, but rather empower people to speak up for what they need from others to do their own jobs.

At a time when workplace culture is scrutinized more closely than ever, work isn’t just about the output and the profits–it’s about how we do it, and how we work together to achieve those goals. People who feel like they belong do better work, and are more likely to commit to your organization’s mission for a long time to come.

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