Creating a more AAPI-friendly workplace

Finding ways to help employees forge connections helps to cultivate a sense of belonging and connectivity, needed more than ever as we continue to adapt to hybrid work, says RPA's Laura Small.

Photo credit: Unsplash.
Photo credit: Unsplash.

As a human resources leader, I have learned so much in the past two years about what it means to create a connected and inclusive organization. 

We are now beyond the two-year mark of our office closure, and what once seemed unfathomable -- Everyone working remotely? From other states and time zones?! -- has become expected, and to our happy surprise, effective. 

The question of culture remains. How do you forge, strengthen, and continue those bonds when people aren’t in the same room? When people are physically apart, how do we bring them together virtually? It has required us to consider creating systems for connections that we once took for granted. We have turned to deliberate and intentional measures to give our associates a place for making friendships and building the networks that once happened organically. 

This difficult change is especially impacting diverse groups. Through dozens and dozens of conversations over the past year or more, I know they share a similar set of challenges: maintaining a work-life balance, a sense of self-doubt, cultivating a sense of belonging and connectivity, and far more. 

It has been interesting to hear from entry-level Asian American hires to better understand what is needed to foster a thriving AAPI-inclusive environment. Their perspectives affect how we approach this new era of work.

Building relationships is hard

It’s never been easy to start a new job and connect with strangers while learning the ropes. “I found it hard to form personal connections with my coworkers at first. But there had been several team hangouts as well as vendor events that I was able to take advantage of. And I didn’t hesitate to take the initiative in reaching out to people,” said Jessica Tong, programmatic coordinator. We have learned that onboarding needs to be reimagined and flexible to meet the needs of new hires as they acclimate. And we encourage hiring managers and teams to be especially conscientious about intentionally and consistently building bonds from day one.

Representation provides security

We have learned that diverse new hires need to feel accepted, comfortable, safe and a part of an inclusive community. “I am a female person of color, so I really appreciated when I saw my whole team filled with other POCs and a female boss! It gives me a lot of hope for my own professional growth,” said Tong. We have created a place to go to work where there are other people whose identities match and can bring more of that sense of hope and belonging in the workplace — employee resource groups are now readily available and open to a variety of groups of people who come from similar backgrounds or have commonalities.   

Consistently encourage openness

We’ve been reminded that young talent tends to be quiet as they watch, learn and acclimate. “My biggest lesson learned is to continue practicing vulnerability. Whether it’s sharing parts of yourself so others can get to know you or fighting the fear of asking ‘dumb’ questions. Reminding yourself that when you’re asking questions, that means you’re trying to learn. It’s okay to speak up, even if our Asian culture sometimes makes us feel that we should not,” said Jay Hiji, assistant media planner. To help build connection, we have rebooted our mentorship program, which will offer the mentor/mentee matches monthly prompts for conversation and candid conversations. 

Social anxieties are heightened

The transition from landing a first job while working from home long-term to returning to the office brings up a lot of feelings and expectations — both positive and negative. “I think the hardest part is the anticipation of returning to in-person. Don’t get me wrong, I love in-person interaction and do my best in those types of situations. But I’ve become accustomed to working at home. I think getting back into the groove of socializing in person can be nerve-wracking for someone who deals with anxiety. However, I’m optimistic that this transition won’t be as scary as it seems,” said Hiji. As an agency, we have put in place days where people can interact in person and meet one another as comfortably and naturally as possible. During the pandemic, we hosted a training opportunity for Associates to elevate their skill sets and build relationships. Topics included management, networking, new business, anti-racist leadership, etc. Departments such as creative, media and production have open houses outdoors in the courtyard to give everyone a chance to meet and greet in person. We’re also hosting a Be Kind Day this year as part of our Mental Health Month programming to bring everyone together for some interactive fun after almost two years of being apart. 

Embrace the never-ending learning curve

Because new hires aren’t always sitting together, interacting, and seeing how others respond at work, it’s harder for them to realize they’re having similar experiences and challenges. “I will never stop being a beginner at something. A few weeks ago, someone on my team asked me how I am doing. I replied with, ‘Whenever I get the hang of something, I’m faced with something else that I don’t understand.’ I felt discouraged and honestly, I said it with some shame. She replied with, ‘And you’ll be feeling this way your entire career.’ Her words felt like a reassuring hug,” said Marielle Cabillo, assistant media planner. We know training and education are critical for a healthy work environment even when working from home. We have hosted multiple webinars and other remote training opportunities throughout the pandemic such as Excel intensive as well as managing a remote team, leading through change and improv and presentation skills for select teams, giving people the opportunity both to bond and to learn some new skills.

These first-hand perspectives remind us that the key to belonging is showing up for POC employees in more ways than one. Steadily being there and remembering that many feelings and experiences are heightened as we continue to adapt to hybrid work. It is essential to pay thoughtful attention to what diverse employees are experiencing, and we are continually making the appropriate changes to maintain and grow our inclusive, People First culture. 

Laura Small is head of people department at RPA

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