Human Development 2.0
Written by Tessa Baston, VP of People Operations
About four years ago, Instrument created a function in our Operations Team known as Human Development. You may have heard about it. For some of our current employees, this article, and this concept of bringing your whole self to work, is what sparked their desire to work here. While the concept of Human Development mostly feels very obvious and necessary—it actually isn’t always the normal approach of companies. Truly leading with care, ensuring balance, setting expectations, exceeding expectations and providing equitable support—in order to enable our employees to constantly be evolving—is the foundation of Human Development, and the reason I show up every day.
As we've navigated the rough waters of the last few months, providing an environment that enables our employees to show up as whole humans, in order to be present, authentic, and fully themselves, has become even more essential than usual. It has also become impossible to separate our whole selves from our work selves. We are literally working in the middle of our personal lives: we hear dogs barking, we see kids running around, we are hearing of illness around us and all of my co-workers now know that we turn our books around on our bookshelves (yes—because it’s more neutral, yes—it isn’t easy to loan books when they are backwards). Because of this, and when we move into the next stages of this pandemic, we need to keep making equitable decisions and operating with inclusivity at all times—because our whole selves are inevitably showing up, and I need everyone to be okay with that.
I found my own perceived focus around these efforts waning once we began the process of moving to a completely remote workforce. I was caught up in the preparation of ensuring our employees had what they needed to work remotely: the technology, the access to internet, the ergonomic set-ups to take care of their bodies, the support, the sense of community, the care. And then I realized, this is what equity looks like in the time of a crisis. Preparing policies and communications that provide support, before anyone has to ask for it. Acknowledging that we understand everyone’s situation is different, before anyone has to say it. Committing to providing different options, or levels of support, depending on each individual’s specific needs, with the flexibility that each of our situations require. Creating open dialogue and vulnerability—from the top down. And making safe spaces for communication so that when we all inevitably move through different stages of this challenging time, we at Instrument have already promised—and shown—our utmost love, care and support. To all.
We know that there are still many areas of growth for us as a company to fully embrace the mission of Human Development, in our leadership, and amongst one another. As we’ve been working on this for a while, some efforts have been felt, and others have yet to impact employees. But in reflection, I think it’s important that we honestly, and transparently, identify the areas that need the most attention, during times of a pandemic and beyond.
When we began Human Development at Instrument, we said that we wanted people to bring their whole selves to work, because whole people create more dynamic and relevant work, and have an expanded concept of self. We also said that in order to do this—we need to hire amazing people, who are excellent in their craft, and live balanced lives.
What we didn’t realize at the time is that we underestimated the work necessary to ensure that all of our employees would benefit from this—equitably and with the sense of safety they need to truly be their whole selves here. In fact, to be able to show up to a meeting as an introvert, a mom, or any other aspect of one’s whole self—beyond your official role—is a privilege that only the most represented employees at Instrument were benefiting from.
I quickly understood this realization, and tension, as the starting place for us needing to understand the realities of equity and inclusion at Instrument. Equity and inclusivity are directly tied to the sense of security one feels in an environment. And, if we are inviting people to bring their whole human into work, in order to expand and evolve, we have to first create an environment of care and safety.
Understanding the Problem
Early last year we started with an anonymous survey asking people about their experience at Instrument, hoping to unearth anything negative. We wanted to shed light on the shadows in our own workplace, so we asked people to be open, to be vulnerable, and to be explicit about how they felt here. We asked them to trust that we would create change from their stories, that the energy expended on sharing their experiences would not be for nothing.
And people shared.
What we learned was that there are four common themes in our office that, on a daily basis, jeopardize people’s safety or sense of belonging: underrepresentation, gender bias, clique behavior, and assumed beliefs/interests.
With this information—we got to work.
First, we formed a WorkGroup to focus solely on equity and inclusion at Instrument. Then, the WorkGroup created a framework to help guide our efforts: internal programming, everyday practices, external communications.
What stood out the most from the survey was the higher-than-expected lack of awareness of what underrepresented groups experience at Instrument. This sparked our idea for one of the largest initiatives we rolled out last year—internal programming.
By providing education and workshops specific to our four identified themes, our goal was to bring understanding around the variety of experiences at Instrument, and help people come together in a real, honest way. By providing it at Instrument, we hoped to eliminate the barrier of time and cost for each employee to access these learnings independently. And, we discussed, at the start of each workshop, the perspective and reality, that each person in the room most likely had made someone feel excluded because of their lack of knowledge around this topic.
Rather than mandating everyone to attend, we set expectations and asked for their autonomy in participation, as adults who want to be more informed and educated.
Of course, the things we do every day make the most impact. First and foremost, we want to create a space where everyone is heard, where it’s acceptable and welcomed to call out problems, have difficult conversations, and hold one another accountable. This isn’t easy. It requires being really open, really listening, and letting down our defenses. It’s something we have to work on every day.
And it’s something that has to be demonstrated at all levels, especially by those in leadership. Our leadership team is still very homogenous, and no matter how thoughtful, inclusive or educated we all think we are, the lack of representation in leadership is something we need to change. Not for the potential increase in our profitability, or whatever all those studies show, but because representation in leadership is necessary for people to be able to see growth potential for themselves here. And, for those who are in leadership from a historically underrepresented group to have the same sense of safety with increased representation—to then feel more comfortable bringing their whole selves to the role—because we need that, and they deserve it.
We are peeling back more layers to continue to evaluate why our leadership demographics are so homogenous, and if everyone is being given equitable access to growth here. That involves consistently evaluating the language we use when describing someone’s performance, the standards we’ve set, and working to clearly define the path to internal growth.
With the call-out of gender bias being one of the major themes experienced here, people specified that they experience bias more specifically in meetings, both internally and with our clients. We’re bringing awareness to this behavior with messages in the most visible place: designed screensavers in meeting rooms. These simple messages remind us to stay aware, and be conscious of the words we use and the ways in which we operate. These screensavers also identify issues beyond gender bias: acknowledgement of the original stewards of our land and reminders to not assume gender, to include remote team members, and to acknowledge negative behavior when you see it.
The screensavers have been a very successful tool to remind us of these behaviors, and keep them at the forefront of our minds while in meetings. And, these are just a starting place—a gentle reminder that requires more. My heartrate still picks up when I need to take the extra step to remind someone to use different pronouns when talking about a coworker. It is so ingrained in me to protect the person exhibiting exclusive behavior so as not to make them uncomfortable. However, I’m constantly reminding myself that—in these moments—I can still be thoughtful, while advocating fiercely. The exclusion and discomfort of the individual who is being identified with the wrong pronoun is more important than the temporary discomfort of the call-out—and, everyone here should understand why that is.
Company events and traditions were also evaluated as part of the survey. These events and traditions are supposed to be fun and rewarding for everyone, but we found that as Instrument has grown, not everyone was enjoying themselves. So we let go of some traditions, developed a few new ones, and tweaked our event calendar. One of the most exciting things to come out of this effort is creating new ways to come together, with the help of all our teammates.
External Communication, Growth & Perfection
To date, our focus has been primarily on the internal programming and everyday practices. We haven’t felt ready to share this work externally. Afterall, what are we doing that’s different from other companies? We continue to learn about our growth opportunities through our biannual survey specifically asking questions about how inclusive and equitable people experience Instrument to be. We also learn this through exit interviews, and many shared conversations around the company. We struggle with this tension daily—feeling/hoping/dreaming that people genuinely benefit from our efforts, that they feel the sense of safety they deserve, while knowing, just like I did when I stepped into Human Development three years ago, that it still isn’t perfect.
But I’m not sure our goal is to be perfect. If we’re trying to create an environment where everyone can truly be themselves—and contribute as their whole, authentic selves—we will not be perfect. We will have conversations that make us uncomfortable, moments of feedback that challenge us, and people who do not agree with an approach we took. Instead of perfection, I think that our goal is for someone to feel comfortable standing up for themselves in Slack when they’ve been misgendered. Or when someone else has made a passive-aggressive joke one time too many. And for that person to feel supported and their voice be amplified so we learn from that exchange and don’t repeat it. Better yet, our goal is that a co-worker is aware enough to identify the behavior and call it out before anyone directly impacted by the joke has to say anything (because those regularly impacted are tired of educating us).
And, right now, our goal is to ensure that everyone is able to work remotely without fear or shame if they don’t have office-quality capabilities at home. That they don’t feel guilty about their family situation and the need to step away to provide essential care. That they aren’t feeling ashamed because they can’t focus—for the many reasons we all are struggling to focus right now.
We are committed to our employees, we always have been, and that commitment should be felt by everyone here. It should feel like safety, it should feel like security, and it should always be evolving as our employee’s needs shift.
The ultimate goal in all of this is to have confidence that Human Development’s mission is applicable and accessible for all—because we believe wholeheartedly in what we’ve created. That someone can feel as comfortable as their peers to use their voice, to disagree, to call out inequities and to not fear for their reputation, safety or job security. From this place, we can continue to evolve.
Evolution is more than promotions, progression is more than becoming stronger in your craft. This place is inspiring and no one should ever feel stagnant here. You should be leaning into growth areas, you should be aware of how your teammates receive you, and whether that aligns with your perception of your performance or not. We do this through always-on, open, and transparent feedback. We do this through direct conversations that hold people accountable for their actions, and their performance.
If we can be sure that each person is showing up to a space that is safe, then we will continue to teach people how to move into spaces that are less comfortable. Spaces of evolution and innovation where every aspect of yourself is welcome, necessary, and vital—especially in these uncertain times when our whole selves are showing up inevitably, and we are asking our employees to pivot and flex daily.