Among the panelists, from left: Amina Lobban of Takeda, KeyAnna Schmiedl of Wayfair, and Julie Law of John Hancock (Photos by Rick Friedman for From Day One)

Alban Jacquin, VP of diversity, equity, inclusion and well-being for Schneider Electric, introduced himself as follows, “Hi, everyone. I am alone. You can hear that I have a French accent. I am 41. I am white. I have glasses on; and I’m wearing Jordans VI, black-and-red edition.”

Jacquin did this to demonstrate to the audience how to be inclusive, the topic of a panel conversation at From Day One’s Boston conference on the realignment of the relationship between workers and their employers. “First, you cannot assume that people don’t have a disability. Begin by trying to level the playing field,” Jacquin said.

KeyAnna Schmiedl, global head of DEI for Wayfair, followed. “[For me] it’s about being open and honest. After George Floyd was murdered, I told my team, ‘Right now is really hard for me.’ And they appreciated how honest I had been with them, so they felt like they could let me know when it felt like too much for them. It’s about demonstrating that humility,” she said.

“One of our corporate values is sharing your humanity,” said Julie Law, head of HR for John Hancock. “If you share some of yourself and be authentic, people feel more open to sharing their experience ... then you’ve got to listen intently when people do share, meet them where they are, and don’t leave anyone behind.”

“I started as an engineer in the lab,” said Amina Lobban, director head of HR business excellence at pharmaceutical maker Takeda, “and have been working in grassroots women’s organizations for years. I felt included when company leadership recognized our efforts to enhance gender parity.”

“In the past seven to eight months, we were able to grow from 15 to 80 people,” said Savina Perez, co-founder and chief customer officer at the talent-development platform Hone, “and still maintain a 50/50 gender parity. We were very intentional about how we wanted to build a certain type of culture, a certain type of team, an extremely diverse team, and we’ve been able to get that done.”

Boston overview, from left: moderator Steve Koepp of From Day One, Savina Perez of Hone, Alban Jacquin of Schneider Electric, and Lobban, Schmiedl and Law

Having shared their inclusion successes, the panel addressed what a New York Times story called “a two-year, 50-million-person experiment in changing how we work.” After all, the office was never one-size-fits-all. It was one size fits some, with the expectation–no, the mandate–that everyone else would comply. At the same time, “we need to acknowledge that there may be part of the workforce that never will have the option to work from home. We have folks in call centers, warehouses, fulfillment centers, and drivers,” said Schmiedl. “What we did was to figure out a way to acknowledge them. We would offer meals-to-go as a ‘thank you.’ We’re discussing implementation of a shared-hours model. [We continue to have] those conversations to understand the roadblocks for folks. Our thinking is different than it was pre-pandemic.”

“Yes,” echoed Lobban. “I went to visit a plant in Nashville, and in France, and noted what inclusion and office work mean for shop-floor employees. ‘If you bring me in for a shift, ensure that there are enough paths for me to finish that shift, otherwise I’m going to be sent home without pay,’” one worker told her.

“As a small organization in hypergrowth mode, it’s easy to say, ‘Let’s build a culture of trust,’” said Perez. “But how can you do that when everyone has 3,000 things that they’re working on every given day? From a leadership perspective we are having those conversations, trying to figure it out, and having our team members be a part of trying to find answers.”

“One of the things we did,” said Law, “is make an inclusive-language effort. In the technology space, there’s blacklist and whitelist, for example. This terminology is embedded. We’ve been thoughtful and intentional about eliminating that because it can help systemically drive bias. We have a longstanding, tenured-employee base, so we’re on a cultural journey.”

“When it comes to language,” Schmiedl said, “when you say diverse and use it as a euphemism for women, for black employees, for those with disabilities, you’re then saying it’s not the default group, it’s something else. We must stop doing that,” she said. “We’re not going to move forward by not having white men as part of the conversation or not having those who are abled as part of the conversation. I went to a conference where the entire panel was either blind or had low vision. And [one of them] said, ‘I keep hearing this term, you know, around creating accommodations, and how much does it cost if you have an employee with XYZ disability? Do you know how much you pay for the lights? As a blind person, I don’t need the lights. We’re paying for all you people to see, to not walk into things. I can do the job without lights.’ So, it's the language that sends a message of inclusion or exclusion, whether or not you intend that. And it’s not about your intention, it’s about your impact.”

Schmiedl added: “Wayfair ran a natural-language process analysis of our performance reviews and identified words or phrases used to describe opportunity areas. We found that the word ‘confidence’ came up more often as a differentiator between men and women. We told everyone in the organization that we might be using this word in a biased way, and if it’s not tied to business results, then why is it important? In one performance cycle, women were on average rated higher in their performance reviews than men and that has been sustained over the last four or five cycles.”

“Plus,” said Lobban, “confidence is a very Western quality. [We are] a global company headquartered in Japan, with additional operations in Singapore, Indonesia, and India. In many countries a woman saying I’m confident is not something you would ever hear because it’s taboo, but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t just as capable. There are also cultural differences that require consideration when you rate people.”

The New York Times story was based in part on a survey of more than 700 readers, plus over two dozen interviews. Lobban noted that, “these surveys say the reason that underrepresented groups don’t want to go back to the office is that they don’t want to deal with the daily micro-aggressions and code switching that they have had to do. [In addition], over the past two years, people’s lives have changed in such a way that you need more flexibility in your life, not just in work. It’s not really flexible work, but it’s sort of a flexible life. And so in my division of the company, we’re looking at creating what we call an Exceptional Employee Experience. Because all of this is linked to well-being.”

The panel’s consensus: The more people feel good about themselves and their organizations, that’s when they feel included. They’re also tend to be more productive and they stick around,   whether working from home or in an office.

Angie Chatman is a freelance writer who covers business, technology, education and social justice. She earned her MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management.