Can Technology Improve Workplace Diversity?

Gabrielle Cichero

I don’t know that the technology sector has a greater or lesser demand for diversity despite recent headline grabbing issues like ‘the Google email incident’. However, according to a recent report by Australia’s Chief Scientist, women currently comprise just 16% of our total STEM workforce. That’s jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths.

Why is this such an important statistic you may be thinking? Given the rapid advances we are seeing in technology, experts predict that about 75% of our future jobs will require STEM skills in some shape or form.

While there is certainly a major need to get more females interested in pursuing STEM education opportunities and careers, I would argue that diversity is good for all industries. For me, talent comes from multiple sources and creating equality of opportunity within the workplace is critical, regardless of gender.

Diversity – and not just gender diversity – brings different ideas, backgrounds and assumptions to the table, and that means you have broader perspectives and a range of ideas to make better decisions.  Our customers are certainly diverse, so having senior leaders and employees who look more like our customer base can only be a good thing.

Organisations who don’t embrace and respect such differences tend to become organisations that aren’t able to challenge the status quo, or think about the problems they face in a new way. Any business that says, “we’re doing just fine the way we are” is missing out or vulnerable to being sidelined by the next start-up. Just look at what happened to Blockbuster when Netflix arrived on our screens.

Anywhere Working and the Future of Work

I’m often asked to explain the role that new technologies are expected to play in helping shape Australia’s Workplace of the Future and whether technology can improve workplace diversity.  According to the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia’s (CEDA) recent ‘Future of Work’ report, more than 40% today’s jobs will disappear within the next 20 years due to technology advances. For me, anywhere working is a strong example of where technology is playing a positive role in helping address the needs of our future workforce and in doing so, bridging the workplace diversity gap.

For too long the ability of being able to work flexibly has been limited to working from home and has been primarily beneficial to working mothers. In ‘The Changing World of Work’, a Polycom global survey of more than 25,000 workers around the world, we found that flexible working is now becoming the basis for truly digitally-transformed businesses across all generations of workers, not just working parents.

Conversations about the role of flexible working in “the future of work” have certainly shifted. It’s no longer enough to simply have the option of working from home or the office, we expect to be able to work anywhere. It’s about making your working hours as productive as possible, no matter your location of choice – a conference or huddle room, a local café, airport or choosing to live in an entirely different location to your workplace to achieve greater work/life balance.

Leading a Multi-Generational Workforce

For today’s business leaders, creating equality of opportunity at work is obviously critical, particularly when we now find ourselves in a multi-generational workforce – from Gen X to Baby Boomers and Millennials. At the heart of this is the need to focus on our employees as people, regardless of age, gender, lifestyle choice, or work location.

While our anywhere working survey found that nearly two thirds of the global workforce take advantage of anywhere working, employees still have concerns about its impact on their career. Does this flexibility mean employees would need to work longer hours? Would they still be considered equally for promotion? In today’s technology-enabled workplace, anywhere working is becoming business-normal; employees expect it and employers need to provide clear and fair policies to attract and retain their best talent.

Surprisingly, our survey showed that it was technology-savvy millennials who were most concerned about the correlation between being physically present at work and being recognised as getting the job done. This suggests that as business leaders we need to be aware and pay attention to things like people’s relative confidence levels.  I’ve observed at times that younger talent (women and men) may not be confident of their own abilities, even if they are competent.  That’s a cultural issue.  I’m particularly sensitive to looking after and coaching employees, both male and female, so they are confident AND competent in what they do.  That means when those career opportunities present themselves, people don’t opt out for the wrong reasons.

Is There a Right Way to Embrace ‘Anywhere Working’?

When you achieve a workplace culture where it is considered business usual for employees to balance work with family, further studies, hobbies and other ambitions, it changes the dynamics of work and retention rates for all employees, regardless of gender.

Perhaps the most crucial piece when it comes to managing a diverse workforce is to make sure that people are collaborating, building relationships, connecting with each other and remaining as productive as possible whether they choose to work in an office or remotely.  This means enabling them with access to the right business and communication tools to be successful – an adequate laptop, the ability to dial into audio and video conference calls, and content-sharing platforms so they can hear and be heard.

Perhaps not surprising, given where I work, I am a huge believer in using video.  It makes any Skype for Business or online collaboration more powerful when you can see the expression on people’s faces and read their body language.  Humans communicate in many ways apart from voice, and you just have a deeper connection with video.  That can make your workforce more productive, no matter how large or small.

Encouraging Workplace Diversity to Deliver Workplace Prosperity

With up to 75% of our future jobs expected to be in STEM related fields and CEDA predicting 40% of today’s jobs will be extinct twenty years from now, it’s crucial that businesses and employees start planning for what lies ahead. This means challenging what we know as the ‘norm’ and asking ourselves to think differently when it comes to problem solving.  It also means embracing diversity and in all its guises to create equality of opportunity for men and women.

When I look towards the workplace of the future, for me, the pathway to success will be in asking ourselves how we can leverage the current gender gap to create more opportunities for businesses. It’s about asking, how can we challenge people to approach diversity not as a task or a tax but as a path to tangible business benefits and true differentiation? To really succeed, we all need to question the status quo and think differently about our challenges.


About the author

Gabrielle Cichero is Senior Director, Marketing for Polycom Asia Pacific. She has more than 15 years of industry experience, defining and executing strategies for business that drives growth, customer trust, and employee engagement. When she’s not in the office, her preferred work locations are anywhere there is great internet, good coffee, and comfortable chairs.