We’re Work.Life, the workplace wellbeing experts. Over the last 5 years, we’ve been finding out the secrets to what makes people happy at work, creating our very own Work Happy podcast, and trying to measure happiness in our workspaces. In light of Covid-19, we wanted to take it one step further, and find out how people leaders at some of our favourite businesses have been navigating the pandemic and keeping their teams (you guessed it…) happy and engaged at work.
This week, we talk prioritising diversity & inclusion through uncertain times with Leyla Omar, Diversity & Inclusion and Operations Director at Brainlabs. We picked Leyla’s brains (excuse the pun) about the importance of D&I at work, the impact of this year, and the kinds of initiatives she’s put in place…
First of all, we’d love to hear a bit about you – where you were before Brainlabs, when you joined the company, and your role.
Prior to Brainlabs, I worked in several companies: a high-growth tech startup, a language school in the Canary Islands, and even in the fashion industry. I studied at the University of Oxford, though I’m sure my tutors will be disappointed to learn that my Spanish degree has no bearing on what I do now…
I joined Brainlabs in July 2017 as a member of the Operations team. I’m really grateful that my role has always been varied, allowing me to work on a vast range of projects such as developing our training scheme, building data modelling infrastructures, and forming the M&A team to project-manage two international integrations.
Since joining, I have been heavily involved in Brainlabs’ equality initiatives, but this summer I was officially appointed as our Diversity & Inclusion Director (alongside my Operations role). It is now my responsibility to develop the company’s D&I strategy, and ensure we are implementing inclusive and equitable processes and policies.
Say I knew nothing about Brainlabs, what can you tell us about the company ethos, values and culture?
Corporate culture is often simply the result of normalised behaviours over time, which are never questioned or properly considered. At Brainlabs, however, we work to deliberately cultivate a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for people of all identities.
Our values around teamwork and growth mindset form the core of our culture and drive everything we do: in measuring individual performance, celebrating successes and pitching our services to clients. It’s critical that these values trickle down into the way we interact with one another, the behaviours we champion, and the decisions we make across the business.
Notably, Brainlabs prides itself on offering accelerated career paths: with fast-paced company growth comes a wealth of personal development opportunities – and my dual role is testament to that!
Now for the big question: why is D&I so important in the workplace? Why do businesses need to make it a priority?
A lot of people would answer this question by droning on about how diverse workforces lead to improved commercial performance blah blah blah…
Personally, I don’t like to frame the importance of D&I from a financial perspective. Of course, money is necessary for companies to function. However, people should strive for equality not to make themselves richer, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Our ways of working are shifting: nowadays, people no longer stick at the same 9–5 job for 40+ years until retirement. Rightly so, we all have higher expectations of what we look for in an employer – most of us spend more time at work than with friends or family – so if a workplace doesn’t meet our requirements, sometimes the easiest solution is trying to find something else (which is in itself a privilege).
In the year 2020, we shouldn’t have to demonstrate why companies can benefit from diversity and inclusion initiatives. D&I is a moral imperative, and those who don’t embrace it will ultimately lose out.
Thinking right back to before Covid, what initiatives did you have in place at Brainlabs?
Pre-pandemic we already had various D&I measures in place, largely driven by our in-house equality committee. For example, we delivered in-house unconscious bias and disability-awareness trainings for all employees, hosted inclusivity events (eg. inviting speakers for International Women’s Day), and ran a campaign to diversify the literature within our company library.
Having this solid grounding made it much easier for me to hit the ground running as soon as I stepped into my official D&I role: it was simply a case of taking what we’ve already done and pushing it further.
“It’s our duty to ensure our teams are well supported throughout this period of uncertainty.”
What have been the effects of the pandemic on D&I?
It goes without saying that the Coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted certain demographic groups more than others: people of colour have been hit hardest by job losses and our overall health outcomes are poorer. Whilst the move to more flexible working has benefited some, it has created new challenges for others (such as young people and those with caring responsibilities). Covid-19 precipitated an unforeseen plunge into economic recession, which – I’m disappointed to note – led to many companies scaling back their D&I agendas, framing it as a nice-to-have, cherry-on-top strategy.
Having said that, we mustn’t overlook the fact that the pandemic coincided with the globalisation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Record-breaking numbers took to the streets in impassioned protest against systemic racism after the murder of George Floyd, which catalysed a collective (and long overdue) awakening to injustices around the world. Fortunately, this outrage subsequently trickled down into corporations, providing diversity and inclusion agendas with a newfound sense of urgency. LinkedIn data shows an enormous upward spike in the number of D&I roles posted following BLM protests in June (the number of people globally with a Head of Diversity job title has grown by 107% since 2015).
The ongoing instability caused by coronavirus is likely to exacerbate inequalities, making D&I more important than ever. It’s our duty to ensure our teams are well supported throughout this period of uncertainty. I really hope that other companies continue to hold themselves accountable and maintain this momentum so that D&I doesn’t slip off leadership agendas once the rallying cries for equality begin to quieten down.
When Coronavirus hit, how did you change your approach? Was there anything that was more or less impactful?
The biggest shift in our approach to D&I following the hit of Covid-19 was the formalisation of dedicated diversity and inclusion roles. Despite having good intentions historically, I feel our approach now benefits from the necessary ownership, commitment and consistency in order to move us closer towards achieving our diversity objectives.
Since my appointment, I’ve been in the fortunate position where I am able to bridge the gap between our employees, HR and senior leadership, which has made it significantly easier to advance our goals. We also revamped our Diversity & Inclusion committee, allowing us to bring new, fresh perspectives to the fore. I’m thrilled that we’ve managed to make some huge strides in the last few months, such as: removing names and CVs from all entry-level role recruitment, revamping our parental-leave policy to become gender-neutral, delivering company-wide inclusivity training, launching Employee Resource Groups, and publishing our demographic report. We still have a way to go, but I’m invigorated by the progress we’ve already made.
Are your team still working remotely? What have been the main challenges while your team aren’t all together?
The majority of us are still working remotely, but our London office is open on a rota basis for those who feel they are unable to work from home effectively. We decided that this was the most equitable solution to address that everyone has differing personal circumstances (which individuals shouldn’t feel pressured to divulge to their employer). Empowering our colleagues with this choice also gifts them a small degree of control in what otherwise feels like a powerless situation.
Back before any of us knew what social distancing was, we had a great deal of office-based perks – like yoga classes and office dogs – that created a fun atmosphere. Lunchtimes were always buzzing with conversation, and offered a chance to unwind whilst enjoying our delicious free food (which I certainly miss!). One of our key challenges now is fostering a strong remote-working culture. Trying to capture that same sense of camaraderie is much harder when we’re not all in the same place. I imagine this is particularly isolating for anyone who has joined a new company whilst remote.
Nevertheless, I’m really impressed by how well our teams have managed to recreate this atmosphere despite physical distance (eg. remote socials and weekly quizzes). We’ve even launched our own lunch delivery service, BrainFood, to keep providing our employees with free meals.
“D&I shouldn’t be your ‘competitive edge’, but a societal commitment.”
What advice would you give small to medium-sized businesses looking to improve diversity & inclusion?
Seize this opportunity to embed D&I into everything you do. As your company grows, it will become more arduous, bureaucratic and expensive to try to reverse years of biased decision-making, processes and infrastructures. So it’s really key to put in that initial groundwork now whilst your organisation is still relatively agile.
Make sure you are constantly asking yourselves the right questions at every level of your operating model: are our hiring practices inclusive? Does our leadership team reflect the type of organisation we want to become? Do we solicit honest feedback? Are our people promoted fairly?
And if you don’t know what to do, network! D&I shouldn’t be your ‘competitive edge’, but a societal commitment. Talk to others about their approach to D&I and learn what you could apply to your own company. There’s no excuse. Act now!
Many companies will have been hit hard during this time – and that often means a reduced people/hiring budget. What can businesses be doing to improve their D&I efforts regardless of their budget?
In the immortal words of J Lo, “even if you were broke, my data don’t cost a thing”. Okay, maybe she didn’t sing those words exactly. But it’s true! In my eyes, the most powerful tool at your disposal is having really robust reporting infrastructures in place. You should be routinely measuring your company demographics, benchmarking against the local population, and specifically assessing the inclusion scores of underrepresented groups. The more anonymity you provide, the better the quality of your data.
These data points are incredibly valuable in order to inform where you should be focussing your efforts, and what will have the maximum impact upon your organisation.
And finally Leyla, what makes you happy at work?!
The most rewarding element of my D&I role is when I manage to make a tangible improvement to someone’s life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also exciting when we roll out new company initiatives or reach big milestones, but the true sense of fulfilment is usually on a more personal level, rather than professional.
All it takes is one kind message or reports of a happier employee to give me that magical glowy feeling that I’m making some small amount of difference. As the old cliché goes: we should all try to leave this world a little better than we found it.