WHAT ARE YOUR TOP PRIORITIES FOR THE NEXT 12-18 MONTHS?
There are many, but I really want to focus on continuing to raise awareness around neurodiversity in the workplace and staff training and awareness around domestic violence and unconscious bias. The big one is in regard to indigenous engagement.
There are significant equity challenges for First Nations people in the design and construction sector, stemming from access to education, unconscious biases and discrimination during recruitment, promotion and in the workplace culture.
At DesignInc we have implemented a range of initiatives and policies that aim to create a culture of inclusion and diversity and to provide equitable opportunities to current and future members of our team. These include policies, partnerships, sponsorship, workshops, marketing campaigns, celebrations, events and a scholarship.
• Aboriginal Architectural Scholarship - We fund a scholarship for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander student studying architecture at Western Sydney University. Valued at $150,000 over five years, the scholarship provides $30,000 annually for living expenses, as well as opportunities for mentorship and employment while studying, and a guaranteed role at DesignInc upon graduating.
• Cultural Sharing Workshops - All staff are encouraged to attend regular interactive 60-minute group workshop facilitated by Nguluway DesignInc Managing Director (and Wiradjuri man) Craig Kerslake.
The other area I am incredibly passionate about is mental health and wellbeing. Mental health is more important than ever before, and creating a positive relationship between work and well-being is critical. Architecture is a particularly high-pressure sector, with tight budgets, unrealistic timeframes and a culture of perfectionism. Striking a healthy work/life balance is arguably more challenging than in other sectors.
HOW CAN WE ENSURE DIVERSITY, EQUITY & INCLUSION REMAINS A TOP PRIORITY?
At DesignInc Sydney, we actively foster diversity and inclusion across our organisation and into the broader industry. It aligns with our core goals - to support our people to reach their personal and professional potential, to deliver excellent results for our clients and to make a difference. We continue to take steps to understand how the often-invisible biases of gender and culture operate within our organisation and have implemented progressive initiatives that put us at the leading edge of inclusion and diversity within our sector. We strive toward creating opportunities for all and supporting a team that comes to work fresh and full of energy and has time for family and friends.
In a very male dominated industry, we have successfully worked to achieved a 50/50 gender split, not only amongst staff, but also at Director Level. We are also culturally diverse with 28 different cultures in our office.
As Chairperson of the RWG (Reconciliation Working Group), I am responsible for ensuring respect and cultural awareness continues to thrive within our organisation. I am also responsible for driving the reconciliation initiatives that relate to recruitment, mentorship, scholarships and HR policies.
As an Implementation Leader of Champions of Change, I have committed to accelerating the nature and pace of change, listen to a wide range of stakeholders, learn about gender equality issues and engage with leaders within the organisation to ensure organisational support for actions and initiatives. I also work with the Secretariat and fellow Implementation Leaders across the Architecture industry to ensure actions are effectively implemented, lessons captured, and progress against commitments monitored and reported upon.
WHAT DOES HR BRING TO THE LEADERSHIP TABLE?
HR plays a key role in developing, reinforcing and changing the culture of an organisation and this can’t be done if HR doesn’t have a seat at the Leadership table.
HOW DO YOU SUPPORT DESIGNINC TO DEVELOP A HIGH TRUST CULTURE?
Culture is not something that can change overnight, it takes years to steer the ship in the right direction.
In early 2021, after returning back to the office from the first lockdown, I recognised that staff were anxious; they had been isolated and not around colleagues for such a long time. People’s resilience had dropped, and they had also become less tolerant of others. As a result, I created and facilitated a workshop on Respect & Equality, reminding everyone how we should treat each other.
The workshop has now become a fundamental part of the business values. It covers bullying, harassment and discrimination, but more importantly, how we should treat each other with compassion and respect.
As part of this framework, I also introduced the concept of assuming the lowest level of tolerance. People don’t walk around with everyone knowing their story. What can seem as a very funny joke can be quite triggering for someone. I championed the assumption that colleagues could be sensitive to comments and to assume the lowest level of tolerance when dealing with colleagues. By communicating and fostering this behaviour, our office all feel respected and safe.
Another important concept that I promote, which came from the Respect & Equality Framework, is the concept of being an Upstander, as opposed to a Bystander. What this means is if you notice a certain behaviour or communication that you think isn’t quite right, or doesn’t offend you but can see it may have upset someone else, instead of being a bystander, and standing there awkwardly in silence, waiting for the moment to pass, you can instead be an upstander. You call it out. It doesn’t have to be a negative confrontational experience. It can be a positive learning experience.
WHAT ARE THE KEY ELEMENTS OF YOUR DIVERSITY & INCLUSION STRATEGY?
Key barriers operate across lines of gender, cultural background, disability, mental health and wellbeing. These are the challenges I continually seek to address.
To create positive cultural change, HR must constantly drive initiatives across the board, for me this includes providing a space within the workplace that promotes diversity and allows others to embrace the cultural diversity within our studio.
HOW CAN PEOPLE BUILD MORE SUSTAINABLE AND RESILIENT WORKPLACES?
My advice to anyone who wants to build a more resilient and mentally healthy workforce is to continually work to better understand the visible and invisible stressors within your organisation, to unpack them, and to implement initiatives to overcome them.
Over the last five years I am proud to have introduced a wide range of formal and informal initiatives that work together to create a culture where people understand mental health issues, feel safe to be open about their own challenges, have their privacy respected, and are able to get support when they need it. These include events, programs, activities, training, tools, resources, information packs, compulsory workshops, policies, procedures and protocols. Our goal is to enable each and every person to reach their professional and personal potential, and for our organisation to thrive.
Our comprehensive Health and Wellbeing Program aims to raise awareness and provide access to information, improving health outcomes for individuals and creating a workplace environment that makes healthy choices the easy choice. Our program is driven by the management team, and aims to improve morale and job satisfaction, engage a team that is committed to their organisation, reduce absenteeism and increase productivity, reduce injury and accelerate return to work, and enhance recruitment and retention.
Tara Keast is a Human Resource professional with over 15 years’ experience, currently working as Head of People & Culture at DesignInc Sydney. You can find her on LinkedIn. Tara is a champion for DesignInc’s staff and their wellbeing, and is particularly passionate in understanding how mental health and neurodiversity impact the workplace.
Initially brought in to help correct the culture, engage the staff and increase retention, it has now been 7.5 years and it feels like a very different place to work! DesignInc has grown from 40 staff members to 120 with a female representation of 27% back in 2015 to 57% now. Having won several awards for all the incredible work they do in regards to their culture and D&I strategies, Tara is truly proud to be a part of such an innovative and evolving company.