While the inclusive workplace has been on the boardroom agenda for years, it is now widely accepted that the business world must continue to place even greater efforts in fostering a culture of diversity in order to deliver business performance, employee wellbeing and build a fair society.
However, putting this into practice remains elusive for many employers.
Indeed, a survey by Chief Executive Women last month revealed that just two of the 25 chief executives appointed to an ASX 200 company in the past year were female.
An often-overlooked outcome of an inclusive workplace is improvement in productivity and profit margins. McKinsey’s global research  recently found that gender and ethnic diversity are clearly correlated with profitability, but despite this, women and cultural minorities remain underrepresented.
A by-product of an inclusive workplace is diversity of thinking. This is because such workplaces engender the cross pollination of ideas as people become exposed to new perspectives and ways of thinking. This in turn boosts creativity and innovation, allowing for more efficient troubleshooting and decision making.
Deloitte’s research finds that “diversity of thinking is a wellspring of creativity, enhancing innovation by about 20 percent. It also enables groups to spot risks, reducing these by up to 30 percent. And it smooths the implementation of decisions by creating buy-in and trust.” 
Diversity of thinking and inclusiveness from an age perspective is increasingly important at a time when so many generations are working side by side. Yet workplaces dominated by older staff can be unwelcoming to those from the millennial generation, while younger team members can be resistant to the idea of accepting members from the Gen X or Baby Boomer cohorts. Just as young staff members can benefit from looking to older, more experienced colleagues for guidance and advice, so too can those staff learn and gain fresh perspectives from their younger colleagues who often bring with them the latest thinking and digital skillsets.
A culture of inclusion also helps an organisation to attract and retain new staff. If prospective employees can see that their experience and ideas will be welcomed and valued, they are far more likely to want to join and stay within the team.
Where to begin?
To many, especially those operating in highly traditional industries, this can seem a daunting task. An inclusive workplace begins with having an environment that not only accepts but welcomes people’s differences. Everyone is made to feel appreciated and valued, regardless of their background, ethnicity, experiences or age.
In many organisations, the attitude held by some staff towards newcomers has tended to be, “You’re different from me and that’s OK, but I am going to continue to work in the way I have always worked.”
The goal should be to change this attitude to one of, “You and I are different but let me try to understand things from your perspective.” A shift in thinking like this can be very powerful and significantly alter dynamics within a team.
Clearly this involves cultural change. And like all cultural change, expectations of staff need to be clearly defined. They need to understand the case for potentially behaving differently in their Frame of Reference and need to see the leaders of their organisations both modelling and driving this. It usually involves some work on helping teams see what’s in it for them, and often involves skilling and support with dealing with unconscious bias.
Organisationally, there are questions too. Does our recruitment process have steps and checks/balances to ensure we recruit fairly and diversely? Are our flexibility policies supportive of flexible working hours, religious holidays and career breaks? Do we care if the answer to “where do you want to be in five or ten years is “retired “or “at home with a family?” Does it really matter if someone wants to stay at home with a baby or retire in five years?
The role of senior managers
Communication and employee engagement are key to achieving this cultural shift. Workers must be aware and excited to be part of the change.
It’s important that it is not seen purely as HR driving the agenda. The process can start by getting it on the agenda of the executive team or a cross functional team of senior leaders and sponsors.
A logical starting step with the rest of the organisation is holding a series of staff meetings to discuss topics such as what’s currently good about the organisation’s culture and what could be done to improve it. Staff can consider who they are as an organisation, what they want to become, and what the stated values and social purpose should be.
It’s important that this doesn’t become a one-time, set-and-forget activity. Managers must be seen to live and breathe an attitude of inclusion and call out when they see both good and bad examples of behaviour.
Managers should also make a point of celebrating wins as they are achieved by staff members. This can be an opportunity to point out how different perspectives and approaches have led to success in potentially unexpected ways.
Measuring cultural shifts
To ensure that progress is being made, despite the polarised view on this topic, benchmarking and targets are imperative. Firstly, diversity targets should be considered and senior managers should pull out all the stops to see that they are met. For industries known for their less diverse workforces, such as those hiring for STEM skills and experiences that may have alluded some demographics in the past, targets should be realistic, but this shouldn’t impede constantly striving for improvement.
I am not a fan of quotas – I believe the best person needs to be in the job regardless of quotas. But reporting on targets and even potentially KPIs, keeps it top of mind and encourages the “if not, why not?” discussion at a strategic level.
It’s not enough to simply measure demographic percentages of gender, age, ethnic or any other groups within your organisation. Metrics such as pay, retention level and advancement must also be accounted for.
When the benefits are so vast, psychologically and financially, to employee and employer alike, it is an endeavour that ought to be vigorously pursued by managers of all industries who seek to increase profits and productivity.
Yvonne James is Director of Strategic Accounts at Miller Heiman Group.