It is no secret that companies with diverse boards outperform their peers; diverse teams are more innovative and creative and diversity is essential for businesses to remain competitive. But it especially becomes more important with the current fragmented workplace structure in which most staff is working from home. Emerging from the shadows of the pandemic, how can organizations once again reset the D&I equation and leverage diversity and inclusion practices as a sustainable competitive advantage for business?
In an exclusive interaction with us, Bernard Martyris – Chief of Human Resources, VFS Global shares his thoughts on how can leaders tap into the value of inclusivity and diversity networks in these times to build stronger businesses.
What do you feel, are D&I plans slipping down companies’ agendas or is it actually popping up, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic?
2020 has been an eye-opener of sorts for individuals, businesses, and communities at large, disrupting entire systems of functioning and/or creating new ways of adapting to everyday situations. From a D&I lens, the world has witnessed how working women have faced the pressures of managing their careers alongside a curtailed or non-existent support system for months on end. That has certainly highlighted and led to a renewed appreciation for these multi-tasking abilities. While profitability is usually prioritized during such challenging times, this time, we are seeing a shift in this trend as more and more organizations are focused on operating a sustainable business that adds value for all stakeholders.
For truly sustainable business practices, D&I plays an important role, especially in organizations like ours which are heavily dependent on human resources. D&I has always been a priority for us at VFS Global and will continue to remain so. Our workforce includes individuals from over 135 nationalities, and we are proud to have maintained our gender diversity trend over the years. As of 31 December 2020, our female: male ratio was 57:43.
The pandemic has proven how collaboration and innovation have made it possible to overcome challenges. As we navigate the future to operate profitable enterprises through innovative operational practices, I feel there will be equal focus on being a good corporate citizen and collaborating with the communities by being a true progress partner.
What steps can ensure that your organization has representation from multiple points of view, and can leverage diversity and inclusion practices as a sustainable competitive advantage for your company?
VFS Global operates in over 143 countries across the world. The diversity of customers we serve across these geographies evidently reflects in our diverse workforce. With over 135 nationalities, our employees bring in diversity in culture, experience, knowledge, opinion, and background that supports creativity and innovation, helping us to serve the ever-evolving needs of our client governments and customers.
I feel D&I should not be limited to the recruitment strategy alone. At VFS Global, we believe in fostering an inclusive workplace where diversity reflects in our day-to-day business processes and operations including learning & development, employee engagement, decision making, and product innovation.
Organizations need to have clearly defined diversity-related goals or KPIs at every level, and processes to monitor staff demographics and trends.
For instance, through our quarterly reporting, we track our gender diversity at management and non-management levels, which is then reviewed annually by our Board of Directors.
It is also important to ensure equal opportunities are provided to employees irrespective of their gender or ethnicity while maintaining a meritocratic approach. Our Code of Conduct andEqual Opportunities Policy’ clearly defines VFS Global’s commitment to ensuring equal opportunities at the workplace and reiterates the importance of being empathetic towards one another irrespective of one’s race, religion, belief, nationality, sex, age, sexual orientation or disability, and on maintaining respect at the workplace in all the interactions with our co-workers.
Collaborating with local communities or leveraging government programs is another way to build solid partnerships with your stakeholders, which will provide a competitive advantage. In 2020, we signed the British High Commission ‘UK in India’ Network Gender Equality Charter. As part of this initiative, VFS Global has pledged to empower people of all genders to break down gender norms and together build a gender-equal society by practicing five broad commitments of the Charter.
How can leaders tap the value of inclusivity, especially with the current fragmented workplace in which more staff work from home?
The post-COVID landscape and the resultant ‘Work from Home’ scenario is still evolving rapidly. Though we are challenged by the uncertainties of the future, I feel businesses that put people and a truly inclusive business strategy before financial gains will have higher chances of survival. So, it is even more critical to accelerate our D&I strategy.
At the same time, remote working has taken a toll on employees’ mental well-being as everyone tries to balance their work and personal lives.
I feel people managers and team leaders have a very important role to play in the new normal of corporate lives. Effective leadership serve as a catalyst in driving inclusive practices at workplace.
At VFS Global, we developed a handbook with dedicated sections for people managers on everything they need to know about supporting their team members. Guidelines on engagement and involvement of team members for making meaningful contributions were included as well. Our Leadership Communication & Engagement strategy came in handy as we accelerated communication from senior leaders that helped us build transparency and trust among the employees.
Overall, I feel organizations can focus more on developing effective people managers and leaders by building on empathy – a vital skill for leadership, especially in a post-COVID world. A robust D&I strategy with clearly defined guidelines for team leaders will also help.
How can organizations rethink their approach to the public conversation around inclusion and diversity?
While D&I policies are now a basic requirement at many organizations, it is important to create synergies between policy and practice, and create a culture of true inclusivity in the day-to-day interactions of organizations. In this effort, commitment from the leadership is critical for driving and advancement of diversity and inclusion, whilst making sure everyone in the organization contributes and adds value to the agenda. Organizations can overcome diversity-related challenges when business leaders take it upon themselves to establish a culture that will provide opportunities for every individual to contribute.
To ensure effective last-mile delivery of these messages, it is important to have a robust communication strategy so that the D&I agenda is driven effectively within the organization. It is the responsibility of all employees, irrespective of the role or level, to promote an inclusive culture. This can be achieved by effective communication and training initiatives to educate employees and build awareness and knowledge on diversity and inclusion.
“Diversity networks too play an important role in shaping the D&I practices within an organization. They are a great way to drive employee engagement and create an opportunity for employees to discuss matters surrounding D&I within the workplace.”
For VFS Global, our very demographic make-up is a reminder that diversity of thought is the essence of a healthy, entrepreneurial organization, and our diverse culture is an important driver of our success.
As part of our 2021 D&I Strategy, we will soon be launching our own Women’s Network on 8 March 2021 (International Women’s Day) – the first diversity network of VFS Global. The Network will offer a platform for our women colleagues to build connections and network, and also provide resources to support their career growth and personal development. The Women’s Network will also help us understand the viewpoints of female colleagues, so decision-makers can develop or improve policies and processes that directly affect the group.
What is one idea/ step that you would #ChooseToChallenge to empower your employees at work in 2021 as far as the diversity front is concerned?
I #ChooseToChallenge unconscious bias at the workplace. I strongly feel it is something that organizations today need to address.
All of us have biases, developed over the years based on the individual’s experiences and background. We tend to continue with them even though they may be misplaced, and it is challenging to get rid of these unconscious biases completely. However, certain measures can help organizations to mitigate its effect and to foster a more inclusive workplace.
Several training programs are available today that help employees with becoming aware of their unconscious biases and provide tools that aid in mitigating them. Organizations need to pay particular attention to biases related to protected characteristics like gender, age, disability, race, or religion. Several countries have established laws that protect employees from discrimination at the workplace based on some of these characteristics. A strong communication campaign around these topics can help create awareness as well. These robust D&I measures – a true synergy of policy and practice – can go a long way in building an inclusive workplace culture.