Business transformation: It's time to get radical on disability inclusion
This blog will use our focus on disability inclusion to highlight how business can embed systemic, transformative and cultural change.
Three years ago I spent time talking with our people, customers and other sustainability influencers to establish where our strategic sustainability focus areas should be. The number one theme, which repeatedly came up as the social issue Virgin Media should prioritise, was ‘independence’.
We took this seriously and, as a technology company, we set our sights on doing more good through the positive power of connectivity; inspiring and enabling independence for disadvantaged people, namely disabled people, across the UK.
Our partnership with Scope, the UK’s disability equality charity, soon followed and three years later our partnership has gone from a ‘national charity of the year’ model to something more strategic, impact-driven and embedded across our entire business.
Our focus right now is an initiative called ‘Work With Me’, which is about providing disabled people with the tools and support they need to get into and stay in work.
The reason? Disabled people are being shut out of the workplace due to discrimination, outdated policies and inflexible working patterns: Many of them can and want to work.
The more time we’ve spent looking into this issue, the more uneasy we have become and the more certain we are that a brand like ours (with a history of disrupting and innovating) can use its voice to raise awareness of the issue so action can be taken.
That’s why, through our Work With Me pledge, we’re actively encouraging other businesses to join us in creating more inclusive workplaces.
We’ve also spent time and money looking inside our company and are taking action to transform the way we support disabled employees and customers.
This focus on disability is now a core part of our business – it influences our sponsorship strategy, marketing activations, leadership conference agendas and customer journey design, to name just a few. Our legal, communications and customer-facing teams are now collaborating closely to ensure we are holding ourselves to account and delivering on our promises.
But what have I learnt? Transforming a business is never easy. To become more inclusive is one of the most challenging, requirements of modern day businesses. This requires systemic transformative and cultural change. Disability is awkward, complex and, in many ways, the one inclusion characteristic that people perceive is too hard to go after. It is no surprise organisations choose to focus on other inclusion areas first. It’s not something that you can do overnight; in isolation or without enablement.
During Virgin Media’s journey to being a disability advocate and disruptor, I’ve come to realise that there is a lot of inclusion fog out there. Inclusion in its simplest form is about difference and enabling your people and customers to own their identity - creating more meaningful environments and language that enables people to thrive. It’s not something HR or Sustainability ‘own’ - everyone has a role to play. It needs to be part of a company’s culture so it becomes part of the brand’s DNA. Think of it more like a movement than a policy or something needing a business case - something you work in partnership with your employees and customers to do.
When I’ve found myself talking at conferences, it has become very clear that businesses are working their way through the inclusion characteristics (gender, LGBT+, ethnicity and so on) and many just haven’t got around to disability yet. You’ll hear them say it’s one for next year. And truth be told, we at Virgin Media have said that in the past. But when you say it out loud, it makes no sense. Building a more inclusive workplace is the right thing to do and it, of course, makes business sense, too.
The time is now
It’s time to get radical. There’s a sense of urgency and momentum in the air and an overwhelming acknowledgement here at Virgin Media that things simply need to change. If we can create inclusive businesses we can create inclusive societies. Organisations across the country need to come together; to share and to find better ways to ingrain difference. It’s time for more action, more creative and courageous business leaders and less rhetoric. It’s time to stop launching initiatives or programmes with an arbitrary start and end date and look much more fundamentally at the employee and customer experience. Failure to do this is a failure to society and disabled people are counting on us.
As business leaders, we’ve got to nudge each other and commit to change. We need to go the extra mile to welcome and celebrate individual difference, to instil compassionate behaviour in our leaders, build connections between people and reduce the incessant talk about inclusion and instead focus on actions rather words.
That’s why we’ve proudly joined #Valuable – a global call to action for businesses to recognise the value and worth of the one billion disabled people worldwide.
Virgin Media is one of #Valuable’s founding strategic partners, and along with other global companies, we’re taking accountability for disability right across our business and our supply chain. This doesn’t mean we have got it completely nailed but we’re prepared to make a stand and work with other businesses to share our learnings.
As we kick off 2019, I’m more optimistic the tide is changing for disabled people. The proof? The World Economic Forum has announced disability inclusion will be a main message at its annual meeting in Davos today. Momentum is now building for disabled people and we have reached a tipping point.
Our top tips for implementing radical transformation
- Design it into your business - embed it into your leadership behaviour, make it part of performance management, challenge poor behaviour and reward great leadership and action.
- Redesign the system - change the way things are done to reinforce this isn’t just yet another long list of initiatives but part of your brand culture.
- Reward managers and customers - it’s about partnership and working together. Empower your people to have a voice and be heard.
- Invest – you need a plan, effective processes, governance and technology to ingrain difference
- Be transparent - communicate authentically in a straight up way and measure the output.
Katie Buchanan is head of sustainability at Virgin MediaKatie Buchanan