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How we’re creating a culture of belonging

Posted by AMH Team

9m read time

Dec 27, 2021

In recent years, we’ve witnessed a collective reckoning about the role of belonging both in society at large and in the workplace specifically. Beyond representation, belonging refers to the emotional outcome—the feeling of being part of something and mattering to others—achieved through intentional inclusion.

In 2019, the Harvard Business Review heralded an epidemic of workplace exclusion whereby employees increasingly report feeling isolated, marginalized, and not accepted or recognized: “Even the most effective recruiting strategy for diversity won’t lead to long-term change if new talent isn’t supported to succeed.”

Since then, social unrest, political divisions, an unprecedented health pandemic, and the Great Resignation have exacerbated this trend and underscored the need to focus more attention on community-building at work.

At our organization, we’ve responded by employing in-house Leadership Development Advisors CJ Rodriguez and Brian O’Neill—specializing in diversity, equity, and inclusion—to help us develop and implement a custom training program to cultivate a culture of belonging.

We asked our colleagues to weigh in on how they’re approaching this important and ongoing initiative, as part of our efforts to build a Great Place to Work®.


Why do diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging matter, in our workplace and in the housing industry?


Brian: The days of a homogenous workforce are long gone. We’re now seeing a celebration of differences along dozens, if not hundreds, of lenses: geography, education, generation, family status, military status, and more. It is not enough to define diversity along traditional lines of gender, race, or ethnicity. We now include diversity of thoughts and ideas, too, as well as the intersection of all of these traits. Progressive organizations are embracing and encouraging diversity across the board. And, once they move past mere acceptance to value differences, they realize that it is not realistic to simply promise equal treatment anymore; they must work to provide fair treatment, with equitable solutions for all that account for different, unequal experiences. When this commitment is demonstrated over weeks, months, and years, employees come to feel seen and included.


CJ: And this is critical to building a sustainable company culture, which ultimately drives business. It's essential to value the differences that employees bring to the organization, because that sets the tone for how we conduct our professional relations externally. If we are inclusive internally, that translates to the communities we serve, the vendors we partner with, and the overall quality of service we provide. We’ve seen many examples of companies where a culture of belonging produces more engaged employees, happier customers, and better results. As a leader in the housing industry, too, we have a responsibility to set an example. Our commitment to fostering an inclusive culture within our organization—in the same way that we support equal housing opportunity for residents—is raising the bar for other industry players to be measured by, which everyone benefits from.



What role do dialogue and storytelling play in building an inclusive culture?


CJ: Storytelling enables us to relate to others and establish commonalities, even with differences. Being able to tell our story, and being willing to receive the story of others, personally or professionally, surfaces new ways to connect. In our Valuing Differences program, for example, our team members are offered a safe conversational forum where they can bring their authentic self, share their formative experiences if and when comfortable, and receive the perspectives of others. This open dialogue strengthens our ability to generate understanding and empathy, and clear our bias lens.


Brian: Traditional DEI training often “tells” learners what to do or not do and what is acceptable or not acceptable. In our Valuing Differences program, we intentionally designed content to center instead around opportunities for individuals to share their personal narratives with a group, usually of 20 or 25. The stories told are powerful and sometimes emotional. Just one that comes to mind: an employee whose grandfather and grandmother were held in a Japanese internment camp during World War II shared how his family’s story affects the way he sees and walks through the world today. These exchanges of human experiences have the potential to create profound connection, with ripple effects that can transform an entire community, in this case, of employees.  



How does the content of the program empower employees to be better allies?


CJ: During the first module, which focused on awareness, we talked a lot about the wide range of differences we might encounter: visible and invisible traits that we may not even be conscious of in our bias. Our second module focused on tools for effective communication. Both are designed to hone our ability to respectfully interact with those around us who might hold different perspectives. Employees who have attended these programs have expressed significant "ah-ha" moments and have come back to share how it's improved their working relationship with peers, vendors, leaders, and residents.


Brian: We first wanted to expose participants to how vast and wide-ranging our differences can be, establishing a baseline for understanding and acceptance. Then, we provided specific how-tos on recognizing our personal biases, identifying their influence on our communication styles and practices, and employing or mitigating specific behaviors to promote deeper connection in our conversations. The goal throughout is to empower employees with self-awareness as well as tangible techniques to better activate and demonstrate allyship across the company.



How does the design of the program optimize a remote working environment?


Brian: Under the constraints of a geographically dispersed workforce, and with COVID-19 further isolating individuals in remote workspaces, we felt it was more critical than ever to bring people together in our online environment. Given the emphasis on personal storytelling, though, this kind of experience may have been too overwhelming for some in a live setting. The webinar format provided an emotional buffer between people, while still allowing participants to see, hear, and interact with each other. Those especially moved or impacted could turn off their cameras, if they needed a moment to collect, for instance. Even as the pandemic passes, the digital option is a powerful tool for us to be able to promote inclusion across thousands of miles.


CJ: The design and delivery of the program are built to maximize the experience in a remote working environment, focused on connection before content. We leverage technological advances to support blended learning and development in a remote world. We incorporate video conferencing to provide a visual touchpoint and the chat function for more "quiet" contributions. The use of gamification, clips, breakout group activities, icebreakers, and more help to support engagement. Although we built this program for the current state, it can easily be adapted to in-person facilitation and maintain the elevated learning experience.



What considerations went into creating a digital safe space?


Brian: We were keenly aware that sharing personal experiences can create a very intimate, vulnerable situation. We embedded instructions to reassure that participation during the exercise was voluntary, with no consequences if an individual felt shy about sharing. We emphasized that even this behavior is a difference to be valued—that some of us are more forthcoming than others, and that’s completely OK. In designing the experience and training the facilitators to deliver it, we zeroed in on the meta aspects: if we are going to truly value differences, then the entire experience must be facilitated with warmth and validation of these variations in participation as they bubbled up during the session.


CJ: We took meticulous care to ensure that the audience, activities, and content were all aligned to create the safest space possible. The attendance structure was set for a peer-to-peer audience, making sure we did not pair employees with their managers in session groups. Instruction was provided to participants that all information discussed was confidential. Recordings were disabled. We stressed that sharing should only occur to the extent that they were comfortable. And we appointed a moderator who surveyed the chat for comments in the background to ensure they were safe and appropriate for the discussion. 



How do you measure success with this program?


Brian: The immediate goal is to improve workplace culture and satisfaction, which we measure through internal engagement surveys, Ethics Hotline activity, and Employee Relations cases. We’re happy to report that we’ve already seen greater resolution and predominately positive feedback across these measurements since implementing the program.


CJ: Beyond tracking session metrics themselves, the more significant assessment is improved behavioral changes over time. We define true success by improved team rapports, cross-functional relationship building, employee evaluations, internal survey scores, and even customer Google reviews, all of which speak to overall culture shifts. Some of these measures take time evaluate, which is why we believe it is critical to ensure that this program—and related tracking—continues.



What were key takeaways from the first module that informed its sequel?


Brian: A takeaway that emerged from the first session was that participants wanted how’s to go with the what’s. While awareness is a key first step, it’s also important to empower participants to activate that knowledge and be able to respond to situations that may surface an awkward expression of differences. In the second session, we introduced participants to a communication model called TACT, an acronym for a four-step process that emphasizes effective listening and translates intent into impact. A second reflection is that shifting mindsets takes time. General learning design shows that a series of programs over weeks or months creates more learning retention and a much better chance of meaningful behavior change than a condensed session. So we’ve concluded that an accretive curriculum will be most effective at identifying and challenging ingrained behaviors.


CJ: We discerned from the overwhelmingly positive feedback that our employees yearned for a continued conversation versus a one-and-done training. As a result, we continue to design this program as a conversation series that layers information. Each module is created from the same DNA. We’re taking care to ensure that each conversation holds its own weight and can be facilitated as a stand-alone discussion, so that they build upon each other but are not necessarily linear in the requirement for attendance. This is what makes each conversation a genuinely unique experience.



What is the long view with this program?


Brian: The ultimate goal is to take this important value for our company “off the wall.” What I mean by that is: the values of a company are often framed and mounted on a wall where everyone can see them, so to speak. But their impact on the immediate behaviors of individuals isn’t guaranteed if the wall is where they stay. Our objective is to fold this value into the everyday, demonstrating its applicability across a range of contexts that reinforce each other within our workplace culture. If I am here for 20 years, I fully expect that we will have built dozens of additional experiences to link, embed, and align this core value with our others, and with our overall mission and vision. You absolutely need the long view when shifting paradigms and changing mindsets around such complex issues.


CJ: The long view is to ensure that we not only speak about our core values but actually live them. We are keenly focused on listening to the voices that make up our team and, in return, providing them engaging learning experiences that expand the horizons of professional training. We see this initiative as essential to developing well-rounded individuals. We want to continue providing access and training that develop human skills, which apply to everyone professionally and personally. We are already seeing fantastic growth in our teams as a result.


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