Workplace culture: The secret to belonging

Diversity makes good business sense, but it may not be enough to guarantee everyone will feel happy at work. So how do you build a culture that is welcoming for all?

By Rosie Gailor,

Having a diverse team means building from all corners: age, gender, socio-economic background, race, sexuality and neurodiversity. Being inclusive, however, means making people from all backgrounds feel welcome. It’s a subtle difference, and it’s one that’s frequently missed.

According to CIPR’s State of the Profession report, the PR industry as a whole is lagging behind on all aspects of diversity. Significant gender disparities persist in PR, including both representation and salary. A total of 92% of survey respondents identified as white, and 89% identified as straight.

For companies that manage to break this mould, though, the benefits are striking. A truly diverse team will be able to draw upon fresh perspectives, voices and ideas. One study by the Boston Consulting Group has even found that companies with diverse teams report 19% higher revenues than their counterparts with below-average levels of diversity.

Of course, it’s easy to be diverse on paper or inclusive in theory. In practice, though, high levels of staff turnover – especially among junior members of staff – are an industry-wide problem, and many companies that are trying to bring in new, diverse talent have struggled to retain them.

The missing piece in the diversity and inclusion (D&I) jigsaw, then, may be ‘belonging’. By making your current staff feel valued, you’ll promote a positive environment that is diverse, inclusive and actually welcoming. Pat Wadors, who has more than 30 years’ experience in HR and talent management, explains that “D&I captures your head, belonging captures your heart”.

So what can you do to create a culture of belonging? One approach is to make sure that everybody feels able to talk openly – not only to their team, but also to senior members of staff. After all, there’s little use in hiring someone with an impressive CV and wide-ranging experience if they sit quietly at their desk, feeling too uncomfortable to discuss their ideas.

To explore the many ways that businesses can cultivate a sense of belonging, Influence recently brought together a group of agency leaders and entrepreneurs to discuss what they do to make their teams feel valued and trusted.

Defining culture

First things first, though. “We can’t begin to tackle belonging if we don’t get the D&I part right, and that depends on culture,” says Rohan Shah, co-founder of recruitment specialist Reuben Sinclair.

Historically, the culture box was ticked by Friday night drinks and summer parties, but our understanding of the importance of workplace culture is gradually becoming more sophisticated. Anna Terrell, a director at PR agency Hope&Glory, explains that “it’s very easy to define culture as the social events you do”, but as David Fraser from Ready10 puts it: “Going to the pub isn’t culture; it’s friendship.”

For Loveday Langton of marketing agency Threepipe, workplace culture is a difficult notion to define. “It means different things to different people,” she says. “I think it’s quite a difficult word to use because it inherently reflects a sense of your own personal background.”

One way to combat disharmonious ideas about a firm’s culture is to shape it collectively. Fraser recalls doing an exercise with Ready10’s various teams to decide upon the company’s core values. This gave people a platform to agree upon the shared priorities that bring them together, rather than focusing on the differences that push them apart.

Kirsty Leighton, founder of Milk & Honey PR, also built her company around shared values. She says these values have now come to influence her business and hiring decisions. Prioritising colleagues’ viewpoints will be key if the firm hopes to maintain its B Corp certification, under which it must be employee-run and meet certain standards for transparency, performance and accountability.

Secret sauce

Once the most important values have been defined, assessing for cultural fit during the hiring process is key. Leighton refers back to the firm’s core values to check that the new recruit will fit in.

“When you’re a fast-moving, newer agency, you’re not recruiting for a specific role, but actually for what projects might come next,” she says. “I’m looking for things that I haven’t already got in the team. I want everybody to come with a little side of secret sauce.”

The roundtable participants agreed that one advantage of a value-driven culture is that you can extend your talent searches beyond the PR industry. Indeed, when assessing candidates on their values, you can ask about their ideas and their hunger to learn, and you needn’t limit your search to those who are already at an agency. Sometimes it’s worth taking a risk on what a person will go on to do, rather than what they have – or haven’t – done so far.

For Alexandra Lewington, head of the PR recruitment team at Reuben Sinclair, a really clear set of values can be “a great way of assessing someone, because you’ve got something to benchmark against”.

“Sometimes, due to the urgency of filling a position, you’re just doing a box-ticking exercise. It’s like going food shopping when you’re hungry,” she says. “But assessing by values means you can see if they’d be a great fit for your business and if they can add something different.”

In lieu of a formal CV, some firms now invite candidates to write freely about themselves and what they can bring to the company. Having this kind of opportunity to express yourself means that the cookie-cutter hiring process is set aside. For example, someone who has not benefited from the opportunities afforded by a private education or personal connections may have double the talent of someone with direct experience at a PR firm.

“If we want to create something quite unique, we have to hire someone who brings fresh thinking,” says James Hoyle from Tin Man Communications. “When you’re intentionally looking for that, you’re going to start bringing in different people with different perspectives.”

For Molly Aldridge, global CEO of M&C Saatchi Public Relations, candidates from alternative backgrounds such as retail or sales can turn old ways of thinking on their head. “I challenge my hiring teams around the world to look outside PR. Retail and sales are great actually,” she says.

“As with anything else, it can be hit and miss – sometimes we get a rock star and sometimes it just doesn’t work – but we look at diversity as being not just about cultural background or agenda, but about industries too.”

Unconscious bias

However, choosing a candidate because they seem to be a good cultural fit for the firm will not necessarily make them feel that they belong.

“If we do hire for cultural fit based on gut feeling, can this be prohibitive to making cohesive and fair hiring decisions?” asks Reuben Sinclair’s Shah.

And with CIPR’s State of the Profession report finding that the PR industry is still largely white and male, is there a risk of simply hiring in one’s own image? Hoyle from Tin Man Communications suggests that “the idea of fitting in and cultural fit is dangerous, in a sense. It surely just lends itself to unconscious bias.”

It’s a risk that Hope&Glory’s Terrell recognises too. “All of us have an element of bias in us. Put a Northerner in front of me and my eyes light up,” she jokes.

However, it is possible to counteract these unconscious biases. “You have to be intentional about inclusion and belonging,” says Threepipe’s Langton. “The intent has to come from the top, and then you need to take active steps to make it happen.”

Practical issues

Leading by example on these issues is not a new idea, but it’s vital if you hope to create widespread change.

Thinking up solutions for some of the practical problems associated with D&I can be a step in the right direction on this front. For example, how should firms handle the arrival of religious holidays? “Is creating inclusivity about getting people involved with religious activities or holidays?” asks Shah.

The consensus around the table was that it all comes down to respect. Hope&Glory has taken steps to embed a deeper sense of belonging by adjusting the traditional work calendar. “The UK holiday calendar is based on a Christian calendar, so there’s time off for Easter and Christmas, but we changed our policy to reflect the other religious holidays,” Terrell says. “We want to ensure that everyone feels they can take a day off to celebrate their religion without needing to use annual leave.”

Ready10 takes a different approach. Fraser explains that the firm operates an unlimited holiday policy to enable members of staff to take part in those life events that happen during the working day.

Flexible and friendly

Embracing some form of flexible working can also help colleagues to maintain their work/life balance. M&C Saatchi Public Relations’ Aldridge recalls that she was initially reluctant to adopt flexible working, as she was “fearful of losing the in-office vibe and culture”. However, she now realises that she was “wrong to be nervous”.

“We’ve upgraded all of our IT systems so that there’s seamless communication, which I think is very important if you’re working from home,” she explains. Programmes such as Slack, Zoom and FaceTime can also be used to keep everyone feeling included in the team.

As well as building trust and ensuring good communication, one of the other elements of successful flexible working within a culture of belonging is empathy. “We have a saying at Ready10, ‘TOC-TOC’, which means ‘think of clients and think of colleagues’,” Fraser says. “Everything needs to go through those two filters. Our team asks what’s happening with the clients that day and then whether that exposes anybody in the team to anything they shouldn’t be experiencing. And if the answer is that it’s OK on both those fronts, then it’s OK with everyone.”

When a team member considers how their workload and working habits affect their colleagues, they’re using empathy to make that team member feel valued. Feeling disregarded, on the other hand, will lead to a high turnover of staff and a pass-the-buck way of thinking.

Crucially, creating those meaningful workplace relationships means that people can see how their work overlaps with others, enabling them to appreciate the to and fro between the teams. Then, they’re creating a culture of belonging for themselves – “and it’s authentic”, Hoyle says, “because they’re the ones doing it”.


A version of this article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q4 2019.

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