In the Spring 2019 issue of Adventure Park Insider, SAM’s sister magazine, organizational development expert Paul Thallner suggested that diversity in the workplace represents untapped opportunities for growing your business. The benefits, he said, include greater relatedness between the company and its customers and other stakeholders. Diversity can be a source of innovative ideas that would not have emerged otherwise as a result of new perspectives on a range of business matters. It can also foster greater employee satisfaction, loyalty, retention, and serve to attract talent, all of which can lead to a growing, vibrant business.
However, the benefits of diversity will not happen by simply hiring a few people who are different than the current dominant group. Like any significant change a business wants to make, it should be done strategically, either within the current plan or as part of a revised or new plan. The goal is to unleash the abilities and talents of everyone in the company.
This article presents key considerations for businesses—with or without a diverse workforce—that are serious about transforming into inclusive, principled, high-performing organizations able to attract and retain talented, diverse employees. The critical considerations are universal design (UD), organizational culture, business ethics, and employee engagement. Here, we’ll focus on UD as a framework for creating a workplace culture that values human differences and engagement in ethical and genuine ways.
Ron Mace introduced the term universal design and founded the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University in 1989. An architect by training, Mace promoted going beyond accessible designs to accommodate people with disabilities. Instead, he championed the idea of designs that worked for all people.
Briefly, the UD principles created by Mace and his team are: (a) equitable use, (b) flexibility in use, (c) simple and intuitive use, (d) perceptible information, (e) tolerance for error, (f) low physical effort, and (g) size and space for approach and use.
The State University at Buffalo, Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access broadens its vision of Mace’s concept: “Universal design ... enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation.”
A very broad concept. Because of its origins in accessibility and inclusion, it has been difficult to move universal design beyond its disability-related context. But in fact, universal design applications have been developing in education, sustainability, technology, social justice, ethics, and other fields. UD acknowledges rights and needs across the full spectrum of human differences and similarities. Operationally, a UD approach not only respects and legitimizes the workplace identities of each employee, it also encourages the relationships necessary for those dynamics to occur.
Applications beyond facilities design. Since universal design principles are rooted in beliefs of human dignity, inclusion, nondiscrimination, freedom, equality, and valuing each person as a unique being, the principles are applicable in all areas of human endeavor. These core beliefs of UD represent a set of values that could effectively create a best-practices foundation for structuring human relations within organizations, too.
To do so will require a thorough analysis of the company’s current policies and procedures, core values, and other steps. The process must involve employees and stakeholders. They will help identify things the company is already doing well with its employees, as well as those things that are potentially harboring structural biases that are either formal or informal. This would include an analysis of the structures of power and privilege that may be limiting opportunities for some employees, and ultimately the business.
Some organizations need look no further than their leadership team to realize they could benefit from more diversity. Traditionally, leadership relies on informal social-based networks for recruitment, hiring, promotion, and contracts for work. This leaves many minority members out of the network of consideration for these opportunities.
Organizational bias. An organization’s formal and informal structures communicate expectations of appropriate workplace behavior and how decisions are made. These structures can be formal, as with restrictive policies and procedures, or informal, through colleague-to-colleague feedback that reinforces a culture of “this is the way we do it around here.” If these structures are biased, then a company has built-in obstacles to success.
It is important to root out beliefs and practices that are incompatible with the UD framework. The UD framework will primarily be about the human elements of your organization. This is where the untapped benefits to the company will be found—in its people.
ENGAGEMENT, ETHICS, AND CULTURE
The value of engagement. Employee engagement is described as perhaps the most valuable asset for a company. According to Gallup, about 35 percent of American employees are engaged at work. They are the people that drive innovation, go the extra mile for the customer and feel a strong connection to the company.
Another 50 percent or so are not engaged. These people are uncommitted, lacking energy and passion. They coast through the day. The remaining 15 percent are actively disengaged, which means they behave in ways that deliberately undermine the goals and efforts of the business. They are a serious liability for the company.
Reaching out to employees in the large, not-engaged group must be a strategic priority. Getting them energized and personally connected with the company can pay huge dividends in daily performance and sustainable long-term growth.
UD and employee engagement. So the question is, how to engage or reengage people and sustain engagement across as many employees as possible? The traditional bureaucratic, managerial, command-and-control approaches are not the answer. Such approaches are incompatible with our modern workforce and what intrinsically motivates and engages employees. UD principles can help.
Gallup’s 2017 “State of the American Workforce” report provides 12 elements that significantly influence employee engagement. Most if not all of these elements reflect the essentials for a UD framework in business. Among them:
• At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
• I receive recognition or praise for doing good work.
• My supervisor, and/or others at work, seem to care about me as a person.
• Someone at work encourages my development.
• At work, my opinion seems to count.
• The mission or purpose of my organization makes me feel my job is important.
• My fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
• I have real opportunities at work to learn and grow.
Employees are stakeholders. Really. For decades, employees have been identified as internal customers or stakeholders. In practice, though, the concept rarely got traction. That is now changing: As companies come to accept the importance of employee engagement and the shift toward an employee-centered market, they have little choice but to embrace employees as stakeholders, colleagues, and even partners. Creating a culture of engagement built on UD principles could be the antidote for companies struggling with recruitment, retention, and growth.
Interwoven in these ideas of universal design, company culture and employee engagement are the principles and practices of basic business ethics, such as fairness, integrity, respect for others, and legal compliance. The ethical practices of a business will have real impact on their relationships with employees and customers. A business’ ethical principles are its moral compass, and should guide its decisions and actions.
Most professions and industries have ethical codes, often provided by their association or society and intended to guide both practitioner and organizational activities. As well, many of these ethical principles have been codified into laws and standards.
There is still much left for individual businesses to decide on their own regarding ethical commitments. This is particularly true in areas that impact an employee’s subjective experiences, such as how an expectation should or could be applied to a given individual in specific circumstances; and rooting out implicit and explicit biases that exist across the company.
This also applies to an individual’s rights, or human rights. This is a hot topic today given the salience of issues like immigration, women’s rights, disability rights, and pay equality. It is also very relevant to the concept of UD in business. Perhaps it is time to revisit our industry’s ethical guidelines, to be sure we are doing all we can to promote practices that respect and guard human rights.
UNIVERSAL DESIGN CULTURE
Building an equitable workplace may require a values shift. This is not a “fake it ’til you make it” proposition. It requires a set of genuine core values consistent with UD principles at the personal and business levels.
Universal design is a solution-oriented approach to business culture. It is intended to drive success, not focus on problems. The principles of UD can be embedded in your business vision, mission, and daily procedures, and directly guide your relationships with employees and customers. The actions that provide choices, permit freedom, invite creativity, and enhance meaning speak volumes about who you are as a company. Those actions are the unspoken conversations that you continually have with each other.
Therefore, leaders should model the changes and outcomes the group wants. There may be nothing more potent than that to build or reinforce an employee’s desire to belong to a desirable group—your team—while still having the freedom to be themselves and become more.
Everyone contributes. Your business culture is built at the individual and group levels. In a UD culture, groups should value their relationships with each other, engage in collaborative decision making, and support one another. The group dynamics created by these values are an expression of their group culture, and serve to further reinforce who they are and their commitment to each other and the business. Managers must be in sync with these groups, providing the support they need through empowerment, mentoring, facilitating teamwork and engagement, and applying relationship-oriented leadership approaches.
PUTTING IT OUT THERE—CUSTOMER APPEAL
If you want your customers to know what you stand for, you need to tell them. Once you are clear about who you are and are demonstrating that in your actions and processes, put it out there in your marketing and public relations materials. Be proud of who you are and the good work you and your whole team are doing. People will want to be part of that.
Don’t oversell it, though. You don’t want to come across as a morality huckster. Discretely, yet honestly weave the language of your values into your message along with examples of how you operate based on these values. Beyond that, your customers will learn about you and what you stand for through experience. They will confirm it with others. Your employees will tout your good name, too. This is similar to the unspoken “conversation” you have within the business. Your actions inform and lead with all your stakeholders, and within the industry, too.
A RISK WORTH TAKING
The goal of becoming a UD organization is to be both “good” and financially successful. It will likely require substantial planning and effort. That investment, and the changes it suggests, may seem like too much of a risk, even for those who desire such a transformation in their business.
If risk is a concern, maybe you are underestimating your colleagues. People are searching for companies that match well with their own values and identities. There’s plenty of evidence that shows employee attitudes correlate positively with customer satisfaction and loyalty. What do your employees believe about the company? What do you want them to believe?
You don’t need all the answers at first. Begin small, and build on those successes. It is OK to make mistakes. Own them, be open and honest about them, get support from others, and grow from them.
All groups consist of individuals with varying wants and needs, strengths and weaknesses, and can benefit from UD. Doing what you can to increase engagement, buy-in, and positive attitudes could lay the foundation for attracting more diversity and positively growing your business.
UNIVERSAL DESIGN PRINCIPLES FOR BUSINESS
The principles and guidelines outlined in this article are merely a starting place for translating universal design into business. The intent is that these principles complement and/or extend existing business ethics, moral principles, and practices. Where these conflict, they should be openly and honestly explored. You are encouraged to collaborate with your stakeholders and other industry members to further develop and expand upon these principles.
1. Build a strategic plan on values that promote fairness, equity, trust, inclusion, honesty, genuine relationships, compassion, and citizenship.
2. Continuously evaluate your formal and informal structures to identify and eliminate bias.
3. Design systems of leadership and management that are flexible and responsive to the existing and evolving needs of employees and customers.
4. Operate in a manner that is relatable and accessible to all persons regardless of individual or social identities. Respect human rights, especially the rights of the most vulnerable.
5. Strive for transparency in the handling of information with employees to provide individual freedom and facilitate decision-making about their jobs, opportunities at the company, and other career choices.
6. Commit to the workplace being a safe environment, free from reprisal for honestly expressing one’s thoughts, feelings, values, and concerns.
7. Value effort from all employees and any positive contributions they may be able to make.
8. Create and operate in environments that are power-neutral, providing a range of meaningful options for participation and options for self-direction. Free your facilities of designations that restrict choices, while allowing for individual usage choices.
9. Communicate clear expectations of the work required of each individual, and describe how their work is valued, evaluated, and contributes to the company mission.
10. Strive for relationship-oriented and appreciative leadership and performance evaluations which cultivate growth potentials individually and companywide.
11. Create a fluid management structure, allowing for open communication, collaboration, relationship development, responsiveness, and creativity.
12. Implement marketing and public relations strategies that are consistent with your core principles, and utilize a collaborative process.
13. Create a culture where engagement is a priority and a critical measure of organizational success. All employees should feel they have opportunities for meaningful engagement and are continuously supported in those efforts.
Encourage UD thinking, planning, and operating from everyone. Those in leadership positions will need ample preparation for this shift. Give them what they need so they can lead in ways that actively facilitate your UD principles and strategies.