Welcome to ‘The DEI Digest’ with Romey Oulton, a Q&A focused on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Built Environment.
This Q&A series is an opportunity for our North American Consultant Romey Oulton to discuss Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Built Environment with lead changemakers in the space who are championing DEI. Each week we will ask burning questions, providing a platform to share career advice, discuss innovative strategies to overcome challenges, and how to lead by example.
IMMO is Europe’s first technology-led residential real estate platform, designed to create quality portfolios of existing single-family rental (SFR) housing at speed and scale. They’ve built a unique end-to-end solution, providing institutional partners with sourcing, acquisition, portfolio management, lettings and property management, enabling them to drive performance and maximise returns.
What does diversity, equity and inclusion mean to you and why are they important?
At IMMO, we take a grass-roots approach to DE&I, focused on our values and vision. Many of our values are DEI-centric such as ‘do the right thing’ and ‘lead with compassion & respect’. These values laid the foundations for the specific policy content we have on this critical subject.
Our DEI guidelines were also importantly shaped by our corporate vision, which is ‘to reset expectations in real estate by showcasing high standards through our transparent, positive transactions with all parties, at scale’.
Our philosophy on DEI was easy to crystalise – we only had to transpose the sentiment of our vision to ensure that we are creating an environment where each and every one of our teams feels they can succeed everyday. So DEI for us is about harnessing the valuable differences and perspectives of our team which intrinsically springs from having over 16 nationalities present in a relatively small scale up.
How do you feel DEI is incorporated in large corporations in comparison to start-ups? Does one do better than the other?
Our company was built different. We don’t have to retrofit diversity into a conservative and established culture with existing norms around behaviour. At IMMO we have a flat organisational structure, organised into sprint and workstream teams. People join us because they buy-into our vision and our purpose which is about shaking up an archaic and unfair marketplace.
It is easy to see how it is therefore natural that people who join us seek a better and new way of doing things, which absolutely includes DEI. This doesn’t mean we allow our efforts in this area to be free-form, but rather that we have sought to capture the power of the people in agreeing principles that our diverse team can feel proud of. Our teams are empowered – they have genuine equality in their daily work to drive for impact in an environment where politics and seniority are deprioritised and we do feel that improves work satisfaction.
In your opinion, why does resistance towards DEI initiatives becoming the leading priority still exist? Is this justified/unjustified?
Successful, established companies have a certain degree of momentum which means their scale delivers performance to some extent. I don’t know if there is resistance to the idea of DEI in larger companies, but balancing inequity retrospectively can be a difficult process.
We have had the benefit, over our five years of trading, to mindfully curate the team that would deliver breakthrough performance. Our belief is that real diversity of backgrounds, experience and gender will maximise our ability to deliver predictable breakthroughs on a continuous basis. So far, it has worked well. We also believe that balanced teams are made up of a balanced approach to gender mix, and we currently have 37% female, 57% male and 6% other in the team. It isn’t the finished article yet, but we are heading in the right direction in terms of a balanced team.
Is DEI a top priority in your organization? Why/why not?
Our business is a marriage of a proprietary tech stack and best-in-class experts who build and manage it. You only develop technology that is worth protecting by hiring brilliant minds and empowering them to create change. Our strength is derived from our combination of skills and growth mindset, brought to life through our values. Our most important value is ‘to be fearless’. This is only possible if you don’t feel afraid that your religion, gender, accent, or appearance should change how you should behave, so you can’t be yourself. Yes – 100% DEI is a top priority for us. It is also worth adding that in conversation with our team, when developing our approach, it was really apparent that they also wanted us to ensure that diversity of character was part of our charter. We need purple cows (Seth Godin) and star chickens (Margaret Heffernan) on our payroll – just in the right mix!
What do you feel businesses gain in a commercial sense by having a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce?
If the norm is not being quite normal (as our team might joke) then it brings an energy and power to the team. It means they embrace Einstein’s quote ‘Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results’. Our team knows that different results are expected on every project, so they plan for change and the behaviour and process to deliver it.
To some people, that might feel like a burden but our diverse teams have a restlessness and ambition, very much fuelled by a DEI DNA, that makes this an exciting challenge. Our DEI policy also doesn’t just float in the ether. We really support our employees with generous parental leave and our flexible work policy. It is very easy to say you support DEI and then not give a mother, or an employee with aged care responsibilities, enough flexibility to do their job and meet their primary care responsibilities (and pleasure). We believe that life is for living and don’t expect that work is everything you do and all that you care about.
So what commercial value does DEI bring? For us it is the intangible benefit of having a team who feel cared for and supported, who then want to contribute more to the company.
What is the one thing you believe every organization should do to advance DEI?
Develop your DEI policy with your people. Sure, develop a draft so the team have something to respond to, but make the development a two-way dialog. Only by doing this can you develop the spirit and detail that will actually excite, inspire and empower your people.
How does your culture value and embrace the uniqueness of others? How can you link the value of equity to your vision and mission?
We have already shared how our vision includes resetting expectations positively in real estate. We believe you can only do this if you have a culture that empowers breaking with the norm. To break the norm at scale, you need the power of teams capable of unique thought and that doesn’t come through group-think. It requires diversity that is harnessed and cultivated. Our mission is all about creating a socially-responsible, safe, well-managed and fair marketplace in the residential industry. We are, in effect, wearing our culture on our sleeve with our mission, as our mission reflects our values too. ‘Do the right thing’, ‘be infinite learners’, ‘clear is kind’ are some of our values and they all enable the equity we are passionate about at IMMO.
What do you think is the biggest misconception surrounding DEI?
I think it’s probably that it will happen naturally if you have a policy. For so many companies, genuine DEI requires structured change management. For us at IMMO, we have built this into our DNA since day 1, >5 years ago, and been very protective of maintaining our culture as we’ve now grown to c.200 people. Our approach starts with how we hire people, to how we onboard people to culture and values, do regular check ins and carry out performance reviews that include alignment to our values.
How can creating belonging and connection be a part how you hire, develop, and retain your team?
A strong sense of belonging and connection doesn’t just happen in an organisation. It has to be visibly valued and fostered. Our Flexible Working Policy details ways of working for our people to do just that. When you allow the degree of work flexibility that we do, there does need to be agreed principles and checks to ensure that teams do have a well-developed sense of belonging. The policy explains how we believe good connections are built and maintained, it was created by the employees and the team still values it as much today as when it was first documented. It serves as a discussion piece for new team members and we are currently creating an animation series that includes this topic. The series will be viewed by our people on a regular basis to keep us on track with our connections and culture.
Another one of our initiatives to keep us connected is our weekly company wide team meeting. Every Monday we meet and share key initiatives, accomplishments, new hires and momentous occasions. It is a really conscious effort to stay connected, close and transparent. We aren’t a big company, we are a scale up, and we want to keep the behaviours that made us successful to date.
When we hire someone, we are of course looking at their skills, but just as important is who they are as a person and what they will bring to a team in attitude and outlook that is currently missing. Our people embrace team belonging deeply, this is why as part of the interview process we assess candidates not just on skills but also on values and whether they are aligned with broader IMMO values and purpose. We have observed that if values are misaligned, this creates frustration with the role and company over the long term. As we are organised into teams that are built to deliver a workstream, not by function, the team’s success hangs on their ability to connect and perform. It builds a dependency and collaboration that we think is valuable.
What advice do you have for those who want to be D&I advocates and aren’t sure how to start?
Most companies recognise that their reputation and purpose is key to attracting and retaining great talent. Most companies also have some kind of engagement survey to take the temperature of their people on a regular basis. If engagement surveys aren’t going well at your company, DEI could be part of the solution. Inform yourself on how to create effective policies in this area by looking at other companies. What inspires you and what feels forced? Volunteer to engage your colleagues on how they think the company is doing now and where the opportunities lie and also link this back to your company values. This feedback can sometimes we tough to hear, but is essential. Starting here will help the foundational work on a DEI strategy, this should all tie back to values and purpose of the company. Don’t forget to link in with your HR/ People Ops team as they are there to help and probably to enable the change that needs to happen. And remember, this will take time and this will be a journey for the company and more importantly for the employees.
I’d definitely suggest that passionate advocates shouldn’t wait for permission: step up, lean in and be an ally.
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