Business leaders must ensure employees know that their opinions count and should use a range of techniques to help people communicate and work together.
That's the view of Shirley Hair, head of Unix engineering at finance giant NatWest Group, and a big proponent of inclusivity in the workplace. She spoke on a panel at the recent European Red Hat Forum, where participants explored practical ideas for boosting employee engagement. Hair says inclusivity is reliant on people feeling that their voices are heard:
I think that when people feel that their opinions aren't being listened to, or that ideas are discounted without discussion, then that has a very negative effect on the overall well-being of that person and the team. I think it's very, very important. I think when people feel included, they bring the best of themselves to the table. And they bring the best of themselves to work.
Hair has worked at NatWest for five years and has around 30 years of experience working in technology across the oil and gas, government, and finance sectors. As a working parent looking to achieve a good work/life balance, she recognises the challenge of pursuing career progression while also focusing on the stability and welfare of her family. However, she's grasped the opportunity and says other women are making a mark, too:
Every day is different - I genuinely feel like I'm making a positive difference. My job is never boring. It's allowed me to achieve a good work/life balance. Engineering and open source has traditionally been quite a male-dominated environment. When I first came into engineering, I was the only female within that environment. And now we have quite a few women in the engineering field, so that's really encouraging. It's been really nice to see lots more women, and very competent women, coming up through the business and taking on great roles.
Developing the right culture
Hair says internal programmes at NatWest are helping to build a culture of inclusivity. The engineering team, for example, also helps drive cross-organisation innovation and are developing new IT solutions on behalf of business stakeholders. This process is completed using an agile framework and collaboration across business teams.
Agile working practices, says Hair, have helped foster a sense of inclusivity. Making small, incremental changes to code helps people bounce ideas off each other. She says agile principles have helped make more people feel included, particularly those who might previously have chosen to work behind the scenes:
One technique that we've found has been helpful is to rotate the sprint ceremony tasks that we have as part of our agile framework. We have sprint planning sessions and retrospectives, and we work in fortnightly sprints. We have a scrum master and we rotate the sprint ceremony around the team. Everyone participates with a different style and a different technique within that agile framework. So it lets people grow their confidence, even for people who'd previously felt that they'd rather just code away. So that's been really interesting and I think it has worked well.
The bank doesn't just rely on Agile development techniques to boost collaboration. Hair says two other elements are crucial - mentoring and employee-led networks:
We have a My Mentor database at the bank, which is a really good way of connecting people. It's a skills-based mentoring system where they'll match you up with mentees or mentors; it can work both ways. It's a tool to allow you to explore different capabilities.
When it comes to employee-led networks, Hair is a longstanding member of Women in Technology. She says these kinds of networks can help people who feel excluded. Hair says individuals looking for best-practice knowledge and shared experiences should get involved:
I know that has been a good foundation for me. I get to bounce ideas off other people and to meet women across the technology environment that have different challenges that they bring to their work every day. I would encourage anyone to be involved in that type of network if they have an opportunity to do so.
Hair says internal employee-led networks are another good way for workers to share experiences. NatWest is looking to establish employee-led communities that have a shared interest. She says these kinds of groups can help people to feel included and to develop a common sense of purpose:
That's something we're kicking off at the bank. We've got lots of different training techniques that we're exploring - Python and different open-source technologies. We're driving communities of practice. I think bringing people together to share their experiences is really useful. Then people don't feel that they've been set a task and they're out on a limb - they can share that learning journey with their colleagues.
Hair's engineering team at NatWest, and the wider organisation more generally, continues to explore new ways to boost inclusivity. She says it's crucial that all IT leaders focus on how they can keep their people included. Talented technology workers are in high demand and organisations should explore how they can improve inclusivity and prevent a brain drain:
You could end up losing really good people out of the organisation because they don't feel that circle of trust. If they feel that their voice isn't heard, their confidence will go down and they'll feel that they're not a good fit for an organisation. You could end up with someone leaving who's got excellent skills.
Organisations - perhaps more than ever before - recognise the dual threats to productivity posed by exclusion and burnout. Research suggests 75% of employees have faced burnout at work, with 40% saying they've experienced burnout during the pandemic. For workers who feel excluded, Hair's advice is to try and speak up:
It can be a daunting thing to do, but I think that's the first step. People might be excluded for various different reasons and I'm sure that's not always intentional. So speak to an associate or someone who's in the same field to say that you feel excluded. I think that's a good way to reset the boundaries.