How to build a system for diversity: insights from VolkerWessels

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VolkerWessels UK delivers construction and civil engineering projects across the UK. VolkerRail, for example, works on railway infrastructure projects across the UK. It is used to managing large projects, and yet, two years ago, it had a growing problem – a lack of diversity in its workforce. 

This lack of diversity was a big problem from a business perspective – in the construction and civil engineering sectors, there is an increasing skills shortage and a lack of diversity. If VolkerWessels UK wanted to maintain its position in the market and attract the best talent, it needed to increase its equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) commitments. 

EDI at the company had been ad hoc up until that point – driven by key passionate individuals across the organisation. The business did not have a formal strategy or long-term EDI goals in place, and there was no dedicated EDI leadership or team.

The board decided to appoint an existing employee to become Head of EDI to put a strategy in place and drive the agenda forward. Hollie Woodard had been with the business in a project delivery role for nine years. She already had a passion for the promotion of equality and diversity in the organisation, having volunteered in schools and at events aimed at encouraging women into the construction industry.

As the newly created Head of EDI, Woodard was determined to help influence real and positive business change in the sector through a specific focus on delivery, and by raising awareness and understanding of the importance of EDI.

"Our goal was to ensure that VolkerWessels UK remains thoroughly inclusive of people from all lifestyles. It should be enriched by a diversity of perspectives, cultures and backgrounds, characterised by fairness and equality of opportunity," she says.

Step one: create a steering committee

The first step was to put together a steering committee (Steercom), led by Woodard. It includes functional managers and senior operational directors across VolkerWessels UK's business units. It is sponsored by a member of the VolkerWessels UK Board.

The Steercom comprises senior operational directors with critical roles across VolkerWessels UK's business units who had previously championed EDI less formally. They either volunteered or were nominated to join the committee.

Each member of the team drives EDI through their area of the business, and is responsible for owning different aspects of the strategy and action plan. It has been crucial in delivering the broader inclusivity project. The group meets face-to-face every second month. Within two years, it has moved from a standing start to embed a new EDI strategy for the business, delivering a number of key initiatives and activities.

The group has taken the lead on pilot approaches to opening up the industry to a more diverse make-up of people on sites with job share and other flexible working arrangements under review.

“We have incorporated EDI behavioural competencies into our development and performance process, refreshing and adapting our EDI policy and training across our business, and enabling the development of an active champions network - ultimately embedding EDI in our DNA,” says Woodard.

Woodard and the EDI Steercom sees this as merely a starting point. They recently held a full-day workshop to drive forward a longer-term strategy to move the agenda on more rapidly.

This includes a focus on challenging the status quo, finding more innovative solutions to attract more senior women, actively supporting staff networks, and embedding EDI training in all of its training programmes. “As a result, we have a clear vision for our EDI journey and goals through to 2023, with each Steercom member developing, driving, and supporting the action plans for delivery of our objectives,” Woodard explains.

Step two: get leadership buy-in

The steering group, with Woodard at its head, created its 'Building Inclusion Together' strategy. The VolkerWessels UK leadership signed an EDI pledge. Equality and diversity at the company has its own visual identity and logo. A dedicated section on the corporate website and the intranet, communicates and raises awareness of EDI.

Senior leaders are now championing EDI within their business units and are driving the agenda with their teams. "This is a great shift to existing ways of working where the 'EDI' lead is often left to drive change," says Woodard.

Senior management team (SMT) members have been assigned EDI objectives over and above behavioural competencies in their Performance Development Reviews (PDR).

Senior leaders have also signed up to become EDI champions following awareness training and the total of EDI champions across the business stands at 52. In the gender pay gap report for 2018, all senior leaders committed to improving gender balance.

Step three: keep training

The company brought in a wide-ranging EDI plan, including activities to raise awareness of issues and multi-channel communications. EDI awareness training for all was – and still is – an essential pillar. "Training has already been delivered to some of our teams," says Woodard. "It is spearheaded and championed by the UK board, and is now being rolled out to every employee.

“EDI is included in our company induction and also forms part of the PDR process. Case studies, personal stories and blogs are regularly shared on our employee Yammer groups, and on the intranet. 50 volunteer EDI champions have been trained and are key to embedding our messages across our business. We have supported key EDI calendar dates with a range of activities across the business.”

Step four: spread the word

"We are also committed to working with the rest of the industry on raising awareness of EDI," Woodard explains. "For example, during the autumn, I represented the business on the diversity and inclusion panel at both the Institute of Engineering and Technology's conference and the TransCity Rail conference."

The company works with WISE, Stonewall and Inclusive Employers to encourage higher take-up of diversity and inclusion policies across the sector. In recognition of its achievements, VolkerWessels UK was given The National Centre for Diversity's Investors in Diversity accreditation.

VolkerWessels UK has also started to further its school engagement strategy. "We recognise that as an industry, more work is needed to encourage young people to study STEM subjects and to promote a positive and authentic view of engineering," says Woodard.

Brought to you by Project journal.

Image: Cienpies Design/Shutterstock.com

Mark Rowland

Posted by Mark Rowland on 28th Oct 2019

About the Author

Mark Rowland is a senior writer on the Project editorial team. He has worked as a business journalist and editor for 15 years, and has won awards for his writing and editing. He has also worked in project and product management, overseeing the launch and continuous development of new websites and publications. Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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