How to develop an inclusive workplace

In fostering and maintaining a diverse and inclusive working culture, one firm is listening to its employees as well as looking to leadership to set an example


  • Sarah Draper

06 July 2022

business meeting in hallway

In the past month I have been fortunate to take part in two industry panels on diversity, one at the UK Real Estate Infrastructure and Investment Forum and one as part of RICS' Pride 2022 programme.

These were two very different events in terms of scale and audience, but both focused on having honest conversations on a subject I am passionate about – how can we as an industry advance and embed inclusivity?

What I found encouraging about both events is that conversations are now about actions and programmes that are in place or being rolled out, rather than just about statistics and problems. With six professional bodies, including RICS, having signed a memorandum of understanding to work together to advance diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the industry, this feels like significant progress.

It is imperative that, as employers, we create inclusive workplaces – the office, site, home or elsewhere – for our teams. But we also need to look at how we attract people to the industry in the first place, whether that involves more active engagement with schoolchildren, or people returning to work after parental leave, a career break, refugees, or ex-service personnel. We need to create a welcoming and inclusive workplace for all.

It's with this in mind, for instance, that I am involved with the Construction Leadership Council's People and Culture work stream. We are working with the Construction Industry Training Board to provide businesses with information and guidance to support taster sessions and work experience, as well as other routes of entry.

We must open our industry so it is accessible and welcoming to the communities in which we work, so they can see themselves represented in the workforce. We need to demonstrate that inclusivity remains firmly at the top of our agenda as an industry.

Changing culture in the short and long term

Like many employers, at Rider Levett Bucknall (RLB) we strive to foster an inclusive workplace culture where diversity is not only accepted but valued and built in, creating opportunities for all.

One of the key lessons for me as part of our own D&I activity is that we need to change things one step at a time and be mindful that it may take several years.

Although we need to look at the bigger picture and long-term goals, we need to be responsive as well. As a business, we try to comment or act quickly when issues arise or events require prompt responses rather than waiting until a quarterly update or board meeting.

The racism during the Euro 2020 tournament and the murder of Sarah Everard were two recent instances where we knew our people would benefit if our chief executive spoke immediately with colleagues to condemn such behaviours, and remind employees of the support available should they require it.

It is important that D&I is about making genuine changes – doing the right thing rather than carrying out a tick-box exercise. While we may start initiatives to mark a particular day or month, such as International Women's Day or Black History Month, these initiatives and changes should inform everyday life in the business. For example, although June is the official Pride month, our activities and awareness campaigns run throughout the year.

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Benchmarking progress promotes inclusive community

It is also important to recognise that D&I, well-being and employee engagement are all aligned when it comes to creating opportunities for employees to be brilliant. Many initiatives cover all three areas; for example, our carer's policy that provides paid time off was introduced based on feedback that 6% of our employees identify as carers.

This helps increase productivity, while a clear vision and purpose enables a level playing field for all; we know that people are happier, more motivated and perform better when they can bring their whole selves to work.

At RLB, we have been working on a programme to bring inclusion to life in our business. Data is key. It's an obvious point, but we all need to know where we are starting from to monitor progress and see whether we are making a difference.

We sent out an employee survey to collate all our D&I information yearly then set benchmarks based on this. We can now see whether our initiatives are having a positive effect on the diversity and inclusion in our business.

We initially established a D&I steering group, comprising senior employees who were interested in the issue. This then evolved into our D&I community, which includes employees from all locations and levels, and represents eight of the nine characteristics protected under the Equality Act 2010.

I chair this community alongside our UK chief executive and global chair, Andy Reynolds. It was important that all employees could see that it represents the whole business, and that it has the backing of the most senior people in RLB.

Employees share their experiences

The community has been a great forum for us to understand the challenges employees face on a day-to-day basis, inside and outside work. Their stories have helped us educate the business.

They have talked about first-hand experience of a range of subjects, from the Euro 2020 racism to Diwali and other religious festivals. We have held lunch and learn sessions, where colleagues have shared personal stories on issues from women's health to hidden disabilities.

Providing the business with training and development – from e-learning at induction to ongoing inclusive behaviour workshops – is also fundamental in helping colleagues improve self-awareness about their beliefs and behaviours and how these manifest at work. This has helped increase understanding of unconscious bias across our business.

Range of initiatives to support inclusion

Policies such as hybrid working, core hours and flexible working from day one of employment with us, provide employees with continued freedom around where and how they worked.

All employees who have requested flexible working from day one have been accepted.

We have created a dedicated email address and an external anonymous whistleblowing line to ensure colleagues have a safe way to raise issues and concerns.

All our partners are involved with a reverse mentoring scheme, which now has 128 participants, and senior leaders have a mentor from our D&I community.

We have introduced enhanced family-friendly and maternity and paternity policies, as well as a new menopause policy and manager toolkit and a menopause workplace pledge.

D&I and well-being learning is included in our induction process. We continue to benchmark our progress, with our achievements including an 8% reduction in our gender pay gap, and we are also introducing ethnicity pay reporting.  

'If I hadn't been able to have a flexible working arrangement from day one, I would not have been able to move jobs and progress my career' RLB new starter

Learning lessons on engagement and consistency

We have also learned a number of lessons since the formulation of the D&I community.

  • In a male-dominated industry, it is important not to alienate white men – many of whom are the best allies we can have.

  • Employees will see through anything that is tokenism or tick-box. Everything needs to be genuine and result in a long-term enhancement of inclusion.

  • We shouldn't be scared to ask questions: people would rather you ask and learn than be too scared to discuss something with them. For instance, we had a great discussion in the D&I community about whether we should stop using the term BAME, and where it was appropriate to use it.

  • The employee voice is far more powerful than external voices. It is easy to pay a speaker to talk about their experiences, but it is far more engaging and powerful if your employees share their own. All our employees have had very positive responses from their colleagues when they have told their stories.

But perhaps my ultimate mantra is that consistency is key. If you have a business across a number of sites, the culture should be the same in every workplace location. Lack of consistency in opportunities given to employees can mean the playing field is not level.

This applies equally across the construction sector. In our bid to build a more inclusive industry where everyone can thrive, our greatest challenge may lie in providing consistent opportunities and positive experiences. It's clear we are making progress – but it is up to all of us to play our part in creating the future industry we want to be part of.

Sarah Draper is head of people and culture at RLB

Contact Sarah: Email

Related competencies include: Diversity, inclusion and teamworking, Ethics, Rules of Conduct and professionalism  

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