Business owners are lucky that they create their own work environment, unlike managers in large corporations who step into rigid, pre-created cultures. However, many business owners allow the working culture in their businesses to flow organically from their personality, without giving much thought to how it could be perhaps better engineered.
Kgomotso Ramoenyane, executive general manager: human resources at Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS), believes that there is a lot to be said for consciously shaping the work environment in a business rather than leaving it up to chance, and specifically to aim towards creating an inclusive culture.
Inclusivity in a business means that the staff members feel valued and free to express who they are, where workers are keen to contribute not merely their contractually required output, but any of their ideas, knowledge and support that can help build the business. In an inclusive environment conflict is not shunned or suppressed, but channelled in such a way that everyone is keen to debate, participate and resolve, even if their ideas do not always hold sway.
Ramoenyane says inclusivity is not the same concept as diversity, although the two are closely linked. Almost always, diversity provides a force that steers an organisation in the direction of inclusivity because different kinds of people – young and old, male and female, black and white, local and foreign – are thrown together in one space and naturally seek to find harmony with each other.
But although diversity can often lead to inclusiveness, inclusivity is more than just diversity. It is quite possible, for example, for a diverse organisation to develop an oppressive atmosphere when management fails to make staff feel valued and included.
Why is inclusivity good for business? Can’t a regimented business where everyone does exactly as they are told also be a highly efficient organisation? Perhaps, but it is also a rigid organisation that is highly fragile in an ever-changing environment, says Ramoenyane. Inclusivity helps a business to adapt easily to changes in the market.
Her list of advantages of an inclusive business culture include higher productivity and lower staff turnover because workers feel valued, solutions to problems are found and implemented quickly because everyone feels free to contribute, innovation thrives because the development of products, services and systems are the result of inputs from many people, the knowledge base of the business expands, making it easier for the business to adapt to changes and ultimately enter and conquer new markets.
Ramoenyane acknowledges that creating an inclusive work culture can be difficult for owner-managers, many of whom characteristically have strong beliefs about how things should be done. Often, they are more used to being listened to than to listen. Another problem is that creating a workplace culture is intangible, abstract and all but impossible to measure. Given all the practical problems that business owners have to contend with, it is not surprising that something like the culture of the workplace is ignored as a fuzzy and less important issue.
Yet the results of an inclusive workplace culture is anything but fuzzy. Those very practical problems that tend to keep business owners preoccupied at the expense of working on their workplace culture can be solved so much easier if the whole workforce is fully engaged in the business.
Ramoenyane offers four steps that business owners can take toward creating a more inclusive business:
1. Define your business goals
If the business owner does not have a clear direction and vision for the business, chances are that the employees’ involvement in the workplace will not go beyond an I-just-work-here attitude. The vision for a business can go beyond growth in turnover and profitability and can include values and ethos. Having inclusivity expressed as part of your vision will of course help towards creating an inclusive work environment.
2. Share your vision with your staff
Whether it is in a series of workshops, discussions, memos or day-to-day interactions with your staff members, explain and engage constantly with them about your business goals. Invite comments and suggestions on how to make your vision a reality, and be genuinely open to their ideas. Employees who buy into your vision are much more likely to feel at home and included in your business.
3. Strive for diversity
With every new staff appointment that you make, you have the chance to increase the diversity of your company. The case for purposefully striving for diversity in your workforce is strong: it can enhance creativity and innovation, it can help to open up new markets and to increase productivity and profitability.
4. Give – and take – feedback
Don’t tell valuable employees for the first time just how valuable they are when they hand you their notice of resignation. By then it is much too late. Giving praise and corrective advice is an art which every business owner should refine and practice as a habit. But it is just as important to remember that feedback is a two-way communication. Business owners must learn to listen as much as they must learn to give feedback. If you can do both with genuine empathy, everyone in your business will feel at home.