All together now: the importance of an inclusive workplace

It’s National Inclusion Week, but making sure we collaborate with people from different backgrounds and with different experiences all year round is the key to truly embracing everyone. Here a view from a few of us at Siemens UK on how to keep making progress.

Wouldn’t life be much easier if no one disagreed with you? If you were never challenged, never held to account, and everything you said and every decision you made was immediately agreed with.

It’s something that Juergen Maier experienced early on in his career while he was working with fellow engineers in a factory in Congleton, UK. They were halcyon days with no fights, no dramas, and not even a hint of anyone challenging the status quo.

This feeling of cohesion went way beyond opinions. It stretched to the team’s physical appearance, meaning the workplace was a safe space for cookie-cutter colleagues to hear their words reverberate around an echo chamber and be reinforced by teammates with the same outlook.

“The factory was white, European, and male. I enjoyed it because I was surrounded by like-minded people,” Juergen admits. “Decision-making was quite easy as we all swam in the same direction and had the same kind of outlook.”

Thankfully, that uniformity didn’t last long. As the factory grew, its employees were quickly forced out of their comfort zone when dealing with customers and colleagues from further afield. “We started to struggle,” he admits. “This was in the early days of exporting to China and India and far-flung places, and it became obvious to me that there were cultures in the world that I really didn’t understand.”

Acknowledging this challenge, the factory was slow to change. “We thought we were doing the right things, but actually we were completely blindsided because we didn’t have any international people on our team,” he says.

Employees from other countries were slowly introduced to the team, finally creating a more inclusive working environment. As a result, the reassuring nod that came with every idea and every solution subsided. “It became tougher,” Juergen says. “I was frustrated because I thought, ‘Why are all these people disagreeing with me?’”

Conflict is important

Work might have become more complex, but Juergen learned a valuable lesson. “Decision-making sometimes takes longer, but you definitely get a more rounded and better output.” In fact, understanding the importance of inclusion changed his entire approach.

And it’s not just about employing people of different nationalities, it goes far deeper than that; it’s about creating a working environment that actually reflects the diverse tapestry of life. “I realized the true opportunity when it comes to inclusion,” he says, “is that people who disagree with you can have a different outlook to you. They are a gift.”

The lesson has stayed with him and now, 30 years later, inclusion is more than just a buzzword. “We’re not just pursuing inclusion for inclusion’s sake,” he says. “We want people to have the richest experiences from as many viewpoints, backgrounds, and experiences as possible.”

For Juergen, it’s about embracing and not simply respecting people. “I hate the word respect as, for me, that’s just a given. And anybody who doesn’t show respect has no place in our organization, it’s as simple as that.”

It’s okay to feel uncomfortable

National Inclusion Week reminds us that there is still more that we can do, and Juergen takes a refreshingly honest approach to acknowledge some of the struggles that we might encounter along the way. He believes it’s okay to admit that difference can sometimes make us feel uncomfortable — we are often afraid of offending someone, or not knowing the ‘right’ thing to say.

“In recognizing this we can really start to make an effort to embrace diversity,” he says. Since his time at the factory, he’s made sure to never shy away from people who express themselves differently to him, in whatever way. “I have found it a really enlightening, brilliant experience to learn from people who I just hadn’t engaged with as much as I should have done.”
Juergen has experience of challenging people to embrace the unknown when he came out as a gay man. A year or two later, some colleagues admitted they initially saw him differently but that he had ultimately ‘opened their eyes’ as they had not recognized their own previous misconceptions or unconscious homophobia.

“If people are not overtly prejudiced but are uncomfortable I completely understand it, because why shouldn’t they be uncomfortable at first?” he says. “They might not have a variety of people in their friendship groups,” he says, “so they haven’t had first-hand experience of all underrepresented groups, and might not even have the right words in their vocabulary.’’ He admitted finding it very uncomfortable when meeting with a group of neurodiverse people recently. “I totally recognize their difference and that we should embrace this much more to help us in areas like coding and data analytics, but I just didn’t feel comfortable in case I chose the wrong language.’’

Juergen believes these feelings present an opportunity to make positive changes and look beyond your clique. “You become a better person when you work in a diverse group,” he says. “You learn insights that you hadn’t thought about because people are coming at it from a different set of experiences.”

Inclusion is good for all of us

“Inclusion has always been important,” says Juergen, “but for centuries we have missed fantastic life, productivity, and ingenuity-enriching opportunities. The speed of organizational change has got to the fastest level I have ever seen and inclusion is a prerequisite of success in that. The winners will embrace it.”

National Inclusion Week is a great time to review our efforts to embrace difference and welcome everyone into our community of Future Makers, but of course, inclusion is an ongoing conversation that should be taking place all year round.

“We have improved massively, but we will never be perfect until we get more people from all walks of life coming to join and help us,” says Juergen. Various LGBTQ+, neurodiversity, and women’s groups are being formed throughout the company to foster an inclusive environment, both to support current Siemens employees and to encourage diverse people to join the company. Training is underway to banish unconscious bias, and interviews go ahead only when there is a range of applicants from different backgrounds. “It shouldn’t lead to positive discrimination,” he says, “but we want to make sure we have better diversity mixes in management and project teams.”

Change is underway, and you can be a stronger part of it. Whether you’re a current or future employee, you can help the company become a more inclusive environment. So join the conversation, think about the changes you can make in your approach to the workplace, and seek ways to make inclusion a given rather than an aim. As Juergen says: “The promise we’ll make to you is that we’ll make you feel welcome and always embrace everybody’s opinions and views.”

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