Tech companies need to foster inclusive, empathetic cultures
Industry Voices

Tech companies need to foster inclusive, empathetic cultures

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Madison Embry, people and communities country leader at Cisco UK & Ireland, and Alex Allen, senior director of inclusion and collaboration community partners at Cisco, detail how to foster the best possible culture in workplaces.

Dotcom entrepreneur and digital activist Martha Lane Fox recently said gender diversity in the UK technology industry is “still terrible”. Currently women hold only 17% of major technology roles, including within programming and software development. Organisations must recognise that having a diverse workforce is not simply a box-ticking exercise, but is critical for driving productivity, creativity, and innovation. This starts with listening to the unique ideas of every employee, whoever they are and whatever they do, rather than take a top-down approach to strategy.

In a culture of trust and transparency, employees can more authentically share their ideas and experiences, creating a heightened degree of awareness about each other. Such a culture not only enables businesses to grow, but also people to grow, helping to build a positive workplace where everyone is empowered to thrive.

Get closer to employees

Here at Cisco, for example, our proximity initiative encourages our senior leaders to have regular one-to-one, authentic conversations with employees from our Inclusive Communities. These conversations enable dialogue and understanding between leaders and employees who have different identities of race, gender, sexuality, ability, and other perspectives.

Leaders often find that when they meet people who have an identity that is underrepresented at Cisco, or marginalised in society in general, they benefit from proximity to talent they otherwise may not have met. These conversations, as well as the insights gained and the actions taken as a result, can help bring more creativity to our teams and products, diversify our organisation’s representation, and build a more inclusive culture.

Since January 2020, globally at Cisco more than 1,700 proximity meetings have been completed by more than 200 leaders and more than 450 participants. In 2023, more than 230 of Cisco’s executives have opted in to attend these events. The results speak for themselves: 95% of participating leaders are doing something different because of their learnings; 98% of leaders and 84% of participants found incredible value in their discussions; and 69% of participating leaders are sponsoring talent with different identities to their own.

To prepare leaders for these conversations, live coaching and access to conversation guides and resources are provided. Employees who participate in the initiative are given the opportunity to volunteer to take part in these conversations, and are matched with executives via a central matching process. In the future, we are working to invite participation from all Cisco Inclusive Employee Communities and continue to scale globally with leaders.

Supporting each other at critical moments

As well as listening, having empathy and care for employees is also crucial for a positive company culture, especially when life is unpredictable. Organisations should not be afraid to take a stand on what matters most and put their people first.

At Cisco, we have a broad range of initiatives to support our people during times of crisis. This includes Critical Time Off – a global initiative for all employees, which allows them to take up to four weeks off each year, at full pay, to attend to sudden and significant life events that require their undivided attention.

Whether dealing with a death, illness, or natural disaster, employees should be there for the people closest to them, without worrying about work. Recognising we all create our families differently, we define “family” as anyone an employee relies on or who relies on them, which equally applies to a flatmate, a neighbour or a pet.

We’ll continue to ramp up support for our employees during life-changing moments. It’s part of ‘Our People Deal’, the culture we want our Cisco family to experience every day. This means respecting and caring for each other, and always doing the right thing.

Powering an inclusive future

Just as listening to people has helped to guide many a technology company’s decision-making throughout the pandemic, it is vital they continue to listen and use employees’ direct feedback to determine their future business directions. Hearing everyone’s voices will make you stronger as a collective.

A listening culture underlines the values of inclusivity and empathy. For any organisation, it’s vital to bring true equity and be committed to doing the right thing for employees, especially in times of crisis. You’re only as strong as the people around you. When we can get closer to people different to us, we all learn and improve. And when people can take the time they need for their loved ones, they come back to work refreshed and energised. That’s when real innovation happens.

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