Now more than ever, we need to connect authentically to thrive in our work environments, yet we wrestle with myriad issues that complicate and hinder our efforts. A global pandemic made many holidays solitary affairs and required homebound employees to adjust to new ways of working. Nationwide protests against police brutality reminded us that many feel unsafe, and civil unrest made public our deepest divides. Many of us are starved for ways to experience feelings of belonging and trust. And, as people bring that longing, wariness and fear to their work, our diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts are more important than ever. 

How can we create community as we acknowledge so many hard truths along the path to our new normal? How can we build bridges of trust when people are on edge? How can we confront these issues — especially given the hurdles we face? The answer lies in meaningful conversations. 

Meaningful Conversations Are at the Center of Connection

On the surface, meaningful conversations might sound like big exchanges surrounding an organization’s culture. They aren’t. 

Meaningful conversations are a series of moments tackling deeper issues, fueled by the desire to do the emotional work necessary to make the workplace more personal. Inclusion demands that we deepen our sense of community through authentic self-expression and commitment to one another. Although organizations should approach these conversations with urgency, we must keep in mind that the process of engaging in constructive, open dialogue is ongoing. The good news is that truly meaningful conversations can be encouraged not only in person but in virtual settings as well. 

Foster Everyday Conversations for a Worthy Challenge

Some people avoid deeper conversations in the workplace for fear of bringing up historically off-limits topics. Yet, if those people could be convinced of the merits of these efforts, their attempts could lead to a healthier work environment while yielding dramatic results for the bottom line. Studies show that, when we effectively equip managers to facilitate open dialogue and foster psychological safety, organizations can realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents and a 12% increase in productivity.

It takes time, skill and intention to promote compassionate, inclusive and respectful interactions and foster connection through empathetic conversations. However, in the end, it’s worth it to achieve:

  • Increased individual self-awareness for employees.
  • A culture of respectful debate.
  • Decisions based on more diverse opinions.
  • Organizational muscle to solve problems together.
  • More resilient teams and team members.

Meaningful conversations encourage us to consider our experiences and perceptions beyond the checkboxes used to label our identities. When we dig deep to find ways to connect — by seeking to understand each other’s differences and similarities and by asking questions and challenging assumptions — we find commonalities. We connect.

Best Practices for a Culture of Conversations that Matter

As companies aim for more open, direct dialogue, they can follow several guiding principles to create an environment of transparency and curiosity. Whether teams are co-located or remote, following these best practices will foster conversations that build cohesion.

1. Set the tone — and role model from the top.

Build trust with your employees and partners by setting high standards for your leadership’s commitment to openness. Leaders must model the company’s values and showcase acceptable behaviors. Listening, responding to feedback and committing to participate in open dialogue are requirements.

If employees never see or hear their leadership teams openly creating an environment for meaningful discussions, it will never cascade down. Setting precedent, from the C-suite in particular, is critical to both illustrate and inspire. Activities as simple as how executives behave and respond during company town halls, panels and other meetings set the standard of transparency for employees.

Moving an organization towards deeper dialogue requires deeper leaders. Without role models, employees will be hesitant to engage.

2. Make it safe for everyone to participate in vulnerable conversations.

Some voices won’t be heard without help, but they’re needed. Establish and honor a commitment to an equitable workplace by acknowledging that challenge. Appreciate that all employees’ lived experiences contribute value to our organizations; at the same time, remember that those differences may limit their ability or willingness to contribute opinions. We can make conversations more collaborative by centering and amplifying marginalized voices.

For example, D&I topics like bias, privilege and code-switching remain taboo in many sectors, and it will take time for every team member to feel comfortable enough to open up about their own experiences at work. We can’t shy away from difficult topics, so we invite hard conversations by creating opportunities dedicated to these areas. This will give employees permission to share and listen. These efforts are branded in some organizations as “culture convos” or “diversity dialogues” but can also occur informally at the start of team meetings or in one-on-ones.

Managers, regardless of expertise, often worry about taking on this agenda. They’re concerned they don’t know enough to avoid a negative experience while managing an exchange of views. Keep your employees at the center of the goal by grounding conversations in empathy and creating welcoming spaces. Include partners from diverse backgrounds when selecting the content, setting and participants. Call on subject matter experts for assistance who can share tips and resources on facilitating formal discussions, establishing ground rules and reaping the benefits of curiosity.

Employees and partners have spent much of the past year isolated from their communities. Consider that the workplace may be the only source of socialization, particularly for the immunocompromised or those with mobility issues. Creating opportunities for connection not only promotes inclusion but also has significant impacts on wellness. 

3. Assess and measure success as you go.

Meaningful conversations require that we frequently check in with employees, inviting them to evaluate and share how our actions help or hinder an inclusive workplace. Demonstrate receptiveness to feedback by ensuring there are multiple ways to listen and receive input from all levels of the organization.

Stay connected to employee resource groups (ERGs). As powerful networks, they provide additional opportunities and safe spaces where people can voice their needs. ERGs are a safe place to make opinions and feelings known, so empower them and turn to them.

Pulse checks, engagement surveys and even the content of the conversations offer a glimpse into how employees are increasing in their own self-awareness and understanding of the company’s goals. Use data to reflect on your organization’s growth. Identify a set of key metrics to track, such as the number of attendees in formal sessions, participant ease expressing opinions or feeling heard, or self-expressed growth or new learning. 

Ferrara’s Day of D&I Series Opened Up New Conversations

Ferrara is one year into its formal diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Our diversity and inclusion mission is to foster diversity and empower all employees to authentically share and grow together. We see this as a way to propel our business forward and to establish an inclusive culture where collaborative minds unite. Meaningful conversations form the core of every initiative.

At the beginning of our D&I journey, we brought employees together to share their ideas. This started with listening to how the company, leaders and teams were described. We listened for bright spots and for stones that needed to be turned over. This established our mission, priorities and goals. In fact, once the goals were established, employees saw their ideas in the plans. Early on, they knew we heard them and that sharing mattered.

In 2020, we continued to foster a culture of listening, sharing and conversation with a series branded “Day of” events. The first, a “Day of Understanding,” offered a full day focused on talks around diversity and inclusion, led by our CEO and ERGs. ERG members facilitated small group and classroom sessions on bias, code switching and privilege, inviting attendees to share personal stories. Executives joined panels and offered deeply personal examples from their careers and home lives.

The success of the event led to its continuation, a “Day of Solidarity,” hosted on Juneteenth by our Black ERG, and a “Day of Wellness” in October in observance of World Mental Health Day, led by our emerging professionals group. Both events followed the format of rich breakout discussions on topics like race, mental wellness, thriving during the pandemic and equity. While there’s no correct way to start, these themes are just a few examples of the conversations that opened doors to self-reflection and camaraderie among peers.

As we faced new uncertainties and addressed systemic racism in earnest, we encouraged managers to lead group calls on current events. This involved members of our executive team and other leaders hosting meetings to discuss how team members were processing situations, how to take action as individuals, how to provide support to one another and how to embrace our role as corporate citizens.

We gathered data to measure employees’ self-awareness from engaging in these discussions. From our very first “Day of” event in February to the most recent, we’ve gone from just over 50% of employees describing their self-awareness around D&I as “at least progressing” to 100% reporting they are “progressing or excellent” in their own self-awareness around D&I following the October event.

We have made remarkable progress in the space of a year and see the bonds established through deeper discussions as a way to connect our goals, people and plans. 

Distance Needs a Bridge

Companies continue to push themselves further in areas like innovation or marketing, but as the pandemic continues, we are living through different experiences and, at times, holding back our feelings about what we’re facing. That’s a missed opportunity. While physical distance may keep us apart, meaningful conversations can close emotional and social gaps and build a bridge with lasting benefits.

Confronting the systems and barriers that have downplayed our sense of openness at work is a task we must face together. With role modeling, encouragement and an organization’s willingness to weave narratives into the corporate culture, we can improve the quality of work and life for all.