Breaking class barriers, neurodiversity affects everybody: five takeaways from the CIPD EDI Conference

From discussions about social mobility to how your organisation can embrace neurodivergent employees, People Management brings you highlights from the professional body’s annual event

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EDI is “a golden thread that runs through the organisation”, said CIPD senior policy adviser Lutfur Ali in his opening keynote. “Everybody says it’s front and centre…but how many times have we been in situations where that narrative doesn’t fit with what’s actually being done on the ground?”

This was a common theme addressed in different contexts across the day – how can these conversations about the importance of EDI translate to the day-to-day reality of the workplace?

Here are five key takeaways from the first day of the conference:

Diverse groups do not work without cultural intelligence

“It’s easier for us to work with people that are just like us,” Ritika Wadhwa, CEO of Prabhaav Global, told the audience.

She asked delegates in the session ‘Cultural intelligence – what is its strategic link to EDI?’ whether diversity in its purest form leads to innovation, and most thought it did.

However, Wadhwa revealed that homogenous teams outperform diverse teams on innovation if cultural intelligence is low. “If you don’t know how to work with people that are different from you, you’re better off sticking to working with people that are just like you,” she said.

But, Wadwa continued, if the team has high cultural intelligence (CQ) then innovation is boosted in a more diverse team. She said organisations should have a CQ strategy, explaining that they needed to implement “the why, the how and the doing” of cultural intelligence.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to flexible working

Devi Virdi, group head of diversity and inclusion at Centrica, explained to delegates how flexible working is implemented in her organisation, saying “it’s about how you work and where you work”.

“How our engineers or our call centre teams deliver for our customers and the flexibility that they require is going to be different from somebody like me and my team who are in the professional services environment,” she said. 

Virdi also said that her organisation is looking to explore how to better support employees who are neurodivergent and those who may be uncomfortable coming into the office.

However, she added: “The cadence is now about making sure that [people] are coming together.” 

Davina Critchley, group D&I accessibility manager at Sky, agreed, saying that graduates and new entrants into the workplace were feeling “disconnected”, so the company is transitioning to a three days a week office model. 

But “the connection has to be meaningful”, added Critchley. She said there was a danger of workers coming into the office just to spend the day on video calls.

HR must embrace and adapt to a neurodiverse workforce

Neurodiversity was an ongoing theme at this year’s conference and in a fireside chat Ed Thompson, founder and CEO of Uptomize, sought to define what the term really means. “Everybody thinks, communicates, processes information differently,” he told delegates as part of the session ‘Embracing neurodiversity for inclusive workplaces’. 

“Neurodiversity doesn’t mean just autism, dyslexia and so on,” he said. “It means every team, every organisation is neurodiverse by definition. Every team is made up of people who will have different processes for how they communicate [and] problem solve.”

HR should “support [neurodivergent people] in the areas they find more difficult, so they spend more time doing the things that they are actually good at, which will obviously benefit the organisation”, said Lawrence Howard, CEO of Thriiver. 

He suggested some ways that people can be supported, such as introducing a staggered start time to allow those who find travelling in rush hour particularly stressful, sending a meeting agenda in advance or offering noise-cancelling headphones for someone who finds noise distracting.

EDI is about more than just awareness days

Inclusive Employers outlined to delegates why having a strategic approach to EDI is vital for its success. Carol Buchanan, head of inclusion qualifications at the company, said: “The very first thing organisations do when they’re thinking about doing inclusion work is… awareness raising.”

She said they start with awareness days celebrating diversity without having a “why” or an approach that is “strategic”. 

“If it is the only thing that you’re doing, what happens really quickly is that the people who are interested and want to get involved, they’re the people who come to everything you do,” Buchanan continued.

“Soon they start getting annoyed because you’re not actually changing anything in the organisation… and those who don’t understand it get annoyed as well because they wonder why you’re having this conversation. So it’s two steps back before you start moving forward.”

She said a strategic approach would have a “vision”, which will tell you where you are trying to get to and why you are going there, a “strategy”, which will outline a roadmap of how you move forward in the next few years, and a “plan”, which will add detail to how the strategy will be delivered.

Combating class barriers needs to start early

“We will not just helicopter in and helicopter out, we will go in for seven years to any school we go into [and] we will commit at least a thousand hours to that school,” Sarah Jenkins, managing director at Saatchi & Saatchi, told delegates.

Jenkins, who has a working-class background, outlined the advertising agency’s approach to promoting social mobility through its Saatchi Uprising programme, as part of the conference’s fireside chat. 

She explained that in schools they work with the teacher to get to a framework around ‘the three Cs’ – creativity, careers and character, to “inspire them to think about the creative industries when they leave school”. 

She said it was important to ensure people with different backgrounds were aware of the different careers that are out there in the creative industries. The “fundamental challenge”, Jenkins said, was “how much creativity has been taken out of the curriculum… the amount of funding that has been reduced”.