Culture eats strategy for breakfast – and it starts with workplace inclusion

What does workplace inclusion mean to companies in Asia? Genuine inclusion means more than single issues like gender, race or age — it means acknowledging differences in perspectives, backgrounds and experiences, writes Pat Dwyer.

Office workers in Vietnam
There's no inclusion if it doesn’t genuinely come from the top — one of the biggest drivers to attract and retain talent is an authentic leader who lives out the organisation’s values, writes Pat Dwyer. Image: Công Trí Đinh/Flickr

So you’ve added breastfeeding rooms to the main office floor, named the first woman to your board of directors and even included pronouns on your email signature. But do these actions make your company truly diverse - and inclusive? 

Efforts like these are undoubtedly a great start, but they’re nowhere near the ultimate expression of organisational diversity and inclusion (D&I). Reducing it to single issues of just race or age, ethnic groups or gender misses out on the foundational principle that D&I starts from, namely the need to acknowledge critical differences in perspectives, backgrounds and experiences. 

More importantly, across businesses in Asia, inclusion in the workplace also relates not only to the way workers are valued but also how they’re classified, be that on contract, remote, part-time as well as what they are paid. It also reflects how they engage - or don’t - with a company’s culture. 

So why is inclusion important now, more than ever? It’s pretty straightforward. No one wants to be overlooked or excluded. Doing so prevents us from progressing and bouncing back, especially if we are to positively emerge out of the pandemic. Exclusion breeds a lack of confidence and trust, at a time when we all want to belong. This is why workplace inclusion is key, whether you’re working in-person or remotely: being excluded destroys culture. 

For example, introducing flexible working hours will only succeed if staff have actually been consulted on which days they want to work from home or show up at the office. When Covid first hit, a retail bank in Singapore swiftly prioritised consulting functional teams on how to get devices past firewalls and work from home. The result? Everyone clearly knew how many days or weeks it would take for them to be fully remote. 

Workplace inclusion is key, whether you’re working in-person or remotely: being excluded destroys culture.

It wasn’t just smooth or efficient, it was an empathetic move. Everyone knew who had access and planned work accordingly. The first step in making inclusion real in the workplace is to make employees part of the conversation. Doing so fosters trust and encourages accountability. 

Don’t forget that inclusion should also include contractual workers, business partners and even suppliers. So step two in making inclusion real, especially in businesses in Asia, is to engage your wider stakeholders. It’s where communications and social media can really be harnessed. Mid-pandemic, the International Labour Organisation and International Finance Corporation (IFC)’s Better Work Indonesia programme developed two informative infographic videos about avoiding “no work, no pay” and the prevention of termination of employment, along with specific guides on Occupational Health & Safety parameters. The videos targeted these practices specifically because they were widespread during Covid, so they were meant to ensure that no one was left behind. 

Lastly, there’s no inclusion if it doesn’t genuinely come from the top. One of the biggest drivers to attract and retain talent is an authentic leader who lives out the organisation’s values. Any D&I effort, therefore, needs to be genuinely practiced not just by the CEO, but by direct superiors. When they model it, then it becomes real to the staff. 

I was part of the judging panel for the recently concluded Community Business  Awards where Angel Ng, Citibank’s chief executive officer, Hong Kong and Macau, won the Responsible Business Leader award. She shared that she was part of a group of CEOs in the financial sector who shared insights, learnings and challenges when it came to prioritising D&I. 

It’s really encouraging that these leaders have transcended tradition and decided to address an issue far greater than their own respective companies, so they can move together as an industry, and encourage more diverse talent to come through. 

Seeing leaders practice what they preach allows the next generation to see models of what inclusive leadership looks like  — vulnerable and authentic — and powerful when they work together. This demonstrates that business can truly be a force for good.

Pat Dwyer is the founder and director of The Purpose Business, a sustainability consultancy. She is the former corporate director of CSR and sustainability at Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts.

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