Building an Inclusive Culture in the Workplace and Beyond: Our Firm’s DEI Journey
In 2020, in response to the death of George Floyd, many people at Hoffmann Architects + Engineers looked to coordinate what, up to that point, had been piecemeal efforts toward inclusion and equity. We had held training programs on gender and bias, conducted a company culture study, and prioritized recruitment of diverse team members, but we lacked a cohesive strategy and the kind of substantive firm-wide conversations needed to really shift the status quo. So, we launched a Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which immediately drew members from across the company, ranging from the president, who has been at the firm for over forty years, to new hires fresh out of school. With people from all three offices and a vast reserve of energy, we were ready to ask the hard questions and launch new initiatives.
By the start of 2021, we had conducted a firm-wide survey on inclusion and belonging, using the results to guide action items. We set up an internal blog devoted to diversity, equity, and inclusion, with resources, a discussion board, an events calendar, opportunities for service and action, and more. We reached out to the Connecticut Architecture Foundation (CAF) to take steps toward establishing a scholarship for promising students of color in architecture and engineering. We launched a book and film club on topics related to diversity and inclusion. Recognizing we had much to learn, we reached out to a DEI consultant to craft workshops for staff and the leadership team on the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion as a business imperative.
One piece of advice the consultant gave us – one we’ve admittedly had trouble sticking to – was not to take on too much, too soon. “Baby steps,” he advised. Trying to go in all directions at once can lead to burnout and disengagement. So, we focused first on the programs most important to us: the scholarship and our employee student loan repayment benefit. Hoffmann contributed nearly $25,000 toward helping employees pay down student debt, which disproportionately impacts people of color. We continued to develop our scholarship program, the first at CAF to offer a paid internship. Our goal was to not only assist with paying for college, but also provide valuable real-world experience. Hoffmann contributed $25,000 to fund the scholarship, and individual employees contributed several thousand dollars more. In June, we finally saw the years of planning come to fruition, as our first recipient received her award.
While we developed these initiatives, our committee continued to pursue varied strategies for fostering greater inclusivity at the firm and in encouraging a diverse pipeline of talent in the industry. Several Hoffmann employees joined the ACE Mentor Program, devoting hours each week to educating high school students and serving as role models. We continued to host book and film club events and DEI workshops on topics ranging from transgender identity to the underrepresentation of women and people of color in architecture. Our team-building events incorporated more service-driven elements, such as Habitat for Humanity builds, clothing/food/school supply drives, food bank volunteer days, fundraisers for people with chronic illness and disabilities, and outreach at schools serving diverse populations. These efforts not only helped build connections among staff, but also strengthened our relationship with the places where we work.
This sounds like a lot, and we are proud of everything we’ve accomplished. Earlier this year, we were tremendously honored to be selected by the Construction Institute for the Special Industry Recognition Award for our efforts promoting diversity and equity. However, we still have much work to do. This year, we re-issued our inclusion and belonging survey, and we found that while we’ve made progress in building work-life balance and shared purpose among our staff, there is still room to grow. That’s the biggest takeaway we’ve had so far from our DEI work: that it’s critical to pause and reflect, to listen and be open to new ideas. As we look ahead to 2024, our Diversity and Inclusion Committee is already abuzz with plans to build more community in the workplace, redouble our outreach efforts at local technical schools, expand our volunteer opportunities, and offer more employee events and shared experiences. Our DEI consultant would probably warn us to slow down, take baby steps… but if we have one shortcoming, it’s an abundance of enthusiasm. We take on too much, perhaps, but the stakes are too high to slow down.
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