Industry Voices

Are you thinking broadly enough about diversity?

Prelini Udayan-Chiechi - Zendesk.jpg

Prelini Udayan-Chiechi, SVP global field demand and regional marketing at Zendesk, describes how the software-as-a-service company goes beyond mere diversity

The pandemic and the injustices and inequality we’ve seen in the last 18 months have all done much to shine a light on the work that we all still need to do as a society and as employers. Like many businesses, Zendesk is on a journey to increase diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace.

A study by Black Tech Fest found that 38% of tech workers think companies’ responses to George Floyd’s death in 2020 were ‘tokenistic’. What’s more, only 14% said their place of work or study had reduced racial bias or comments. Truth be told, we’ve only scratched the surface and there’s a need for real action to bring about genuine change – not empty promises.

DEI is an ever-evolving issue that needs to reach every corner of the world around us. Within enterprise, the unique perspectives that a diverse workforce brings are consistently recognised as driving better business outcomes. But in my view, we’ll only have reached a good place when we don’t have to put labels on people to acknowledge diversity: when we no longer need to call out the first woman or first person of colour, because diversity will be the norm.

But “diversity” means more than gender or race, important as they are. It also includes age, background, experience, education, language, and anything that contributes to diversity of thought. It is this full spectrum of cognitive diversity that will benefit businesses and society, because it’ll be a true reflection of the people we serve.

New perspectives

Movements such as Black Lives Matter have brought the issue of DEI to the fore for organisations across the globe. They have prompted leadership teams to look at their own processes and question whether they do not just have equal environments, but truly inclusive workplaces where team members feel appreciated for their differences and psychologically comfortable coming forward with ideas that draw on their cognitive diversity.

Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer Special Report found that as the pandemic eases, people of colour have been reluctant to re-enter work environments where they repeatedly faced microaggressions. Meanwhile, three-quarters of those surveyed said that when considering a job, they now expect employees at all levels within the organisation to reflect the diversity of the customers and community they serve.

To that end, leadership teams need to lean in, consider all forms of diversity and embrace them in their culture, so that these efforts become more than a tick-box exercise. Reaching this point, in my view, requires much more than developing a policy – it must be achieved through our everyday actions when leading teams.

But for all the improvements still to go, we cannot lose sight of the small wins that have been made to benefit employees and customers alike.

Learning in diversity

Here are a few of my most important things I’ve learned during Zendesk’s DEI journey.

- Stand for something as a business.

- Define the values that shape the company and create principles that align with that.

- Develop leaders and leadership toolkits to educate those with knowledge gaps.

- Encourage safe spaces for employees.

- Allow for flexibility and balance.

These are key to welcoming a more diverse workforce, but require a shift in mindset, focusing on accomplishments.

Listen to and act on employee feedback. Then do it more. As part of our DEI commitment, we introduced the Zendesk Inclusion Index with the goal of measuring the impact of our global company-wide DEI efforts

Leaders visibly participating in DEI efforts and becoming be allies of underrepresented groups in the workplace is also important.

Here are some of the ways I’m working with my team. We apportion some of our budget to experimentation. I encourage my team to put a percentage towards experimentation to surface innovative ideas. That way, we don’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them.

As a global lead, I offer multiple ways for teams to share their thoughts so they can be heard and participate, including being on calls or communication platforms, and using surveys and shared documents. This gives everyone the space to share their valuable input in the way that feels most comfortable to them. It also allows the business to tap into a breadth of perspective and experience. We’ve learned so much from each other by doing this and expanding our network.

In a lot of ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has opened an opportunity for people who might want or need greater flexibility in their work life, such as providing opportunities for mothers and fathers to spend time with family in the middle of the day, or the ability to work remotely for those who want to live away from cities, overseas or closer to family. I’ve been fortunate to move into a global role without needing to relocate to Zendesk’s headquarters, which would’ve been vital for the role’s function in the past.

This flexibility is going to help push things forward in the post-pandemic time, because we’re going to be thinking differently about working practices, the makeup of teams and where they need to be based, how businesses operate, and the hours that people should work. As Covid-19 restrictions begin to lift, it’s now up to businesses to continue to be flexible.

Companies have a responsibility to ensure that all their workers feel valued and can contribute in useful and unique ways. Following through on that doesn’t just mean being proactive – it also means addressing any barriers to new approaches to work too. As we return to the office, let’s embrace the progress we’ve made to date and ensure we don’t slow down.

If we do maintain progress, I’m confident that many like me will finally make the shift from being “female leaders” to being leaders who happen to be female.