New Working Environments: Mastering diversity

Office Trends New Working Environments Open Office

How and in what direction are new working environments developing? Future workplaces, emerging work methods? In our current series of Bene’s Office.Info, we try to track down the major trends for the coming years.

Not everyone likes strawberries with pepper or sour cherries with chili. But it doesn’t take a lot of discussion to agree that a fresh salad with lots of ingredients tastes better than some cellophane-wrapped thing you pull out of the freezer. Chicory, radicchio, oak leaf lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, fennel, avocado, pumpkin seeds, balsamic vinegar, olive oil: when it comes to eating, it’s clear – we love diversity. Yet it’s much more than just a question of taste: nature is a complex system, and the preservation of diversity is an essential requirement for our planet’s survival. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity defines biodiversity as the "variability among living organisms of all origins, including diversity within and across species and the diversity of ecosystems." There is general consensus that the preservation and sustainable use of biological diversity is important.

Diversity is the future

When we start to talk about diversity among people, the talk quickly turns personal. Whether it’s immigrants, Muslims, homosexuals, Africans, people with disabilities, pensioners: things with which we have no experience trigger both curiosity and fear. Simply because they’re different. This leads to polarisation, yet the world is much more complex than just black and white. Such an attitude can’t hold up much longer. That has little to do with being an idealist – and a lot to do with economic survival. Because we need more young, dedicated employees than we have.

Diversity among people is at least as multi-layered as it is in nature. It starts with the visible characteristics: Are you a man or woman? Old or young? Black or white? Married or single? Fat or thin? Even disabilities can be recognised right away. Yet appearance isn’t the only way to assess a person; how they think also plays a major role: attitudes and values that can be expressed in family status, religious affiliations and sexual orientation. All of this influences our preferences, modes of behaviour, product selection and our friendships.

The birth rate for an Austrian or German mother is about 1.4 children, which also shapes the future of our working world. The native population is becoming older, and they’re having fewer children. We are already feeling the shortage of labour power. Immigrants from other countries are looking for work, however, and they are young and vital. They want to learn and they want to assimilate. And they know their own culture as well as foreign languages. This represents a major opportunity for every company that wants to take on new international markets.

No one is as different as you

"The integration debate is all too often one-sided. It’s about changing perspectives and perceiving people more as individuals," says Beatrice Achaleke, a black woman born in Cameroon who now has Austrian citizenship. She seems predestined to explore the opportunities offered by diversity. Achaleke is the founder and CEO of "Diversity in Leadership & Consulting e. U.", as well as an initiator and convention manager for the "European Diversity & Business Congress." She knows what she’s talking about. "The skills of people from other cultures are often reduced to their knowledge of the German language. Yet many of these people have the professional skills that we are looking for. Diversity brings great benefits if you can see them. But it’s like a gold mine: if you want to get the gold, you have to work hard for it."

In this case, diversity means showing a real interest in employees, communicating with them, exploring their talents, preferences and strengths, and being able to put them in positions where they can be their most productive. Diversity begins with recognising the needs, abilities and potential of employees, and then trying to find the right place for them. Achaleke gives an example of an Austrian company that wanted to open a location in Istanbul. The Turkish employee whose job was to stack pallets turned out to be a helpful contact and a great networker. "Before I import skilled workers, I should ask whether they’re already here," says Achaleke. The first step to discovering untapped potential is to create a "diversity task force" that raises awareness about the topic and offers opportunities for interaction: spaces are needed for communication and exchange.

There is a major opportunity in the diversity and common ground of women, employees from foreign cultures, with varied religions, different sexual orientation, a disability or other unique features. You need only recognise it and be able to deal with it. Every person who is personally affected knows best what people in similar situations need. Here lies the first step toward developing new products and conquering new markets. All of this also influences the workplace: offices need to have spaces for communication, zones that facilitate relaxed meetings, and areas for negotiating business deals. Learning what these spaces might look like begins in the same way: with dialogue. Large tables for communal breakfast where people from different cultures make contributions to getting to know each other, exchanging and discovering common ground – that’s a good start. Wheelchair-accessible tables, special furniture for people with special needs, tactile surfaces, sofas, cushions, samovars, tea kettles, or something like the Toguna from Bene’s Parcs furniture series. This cylinder-shaped furniture, with its soft upholstery and round wall, was inspired by the village elders in Mali. They sit in a circle on the floor in a very low room in which no one can stand up straight: hierarchies seem to dissolve all on their own. The best way to get started on an equal footing is to see eye to eye.

New perspectives

A voyage of discovery into the world of diversity is worth it. There are several examples out there. The Raiffeisen Bank recognised this potential and the purchasing power of the Turkish community, so they developed their own marriage loan so that Turks can experience their traditional big weddings in Austria too. If you want to know more about the needs of the elderly, you’d best ask pensioners. Erste Bank, for example, talked to retired former employees. Even Walt Disney knew long ago that a film that works should have a message for everyone. That’s why there are several characters in "Finding Nemo" that address specific people: the main character "Nemo", the little clownfish, has one weaker fin that his father calls his "happy fin". A figure of identification for the disabled and at the same time guidance on how to deal with it positively. The film had record results for an animated film on the first weekend. You see: it pays to change perspectives.



Isabella Marboe