Big Interview: Van Tang – part two.

In the conclusion of a two-part chat with Sean Barker from the Diversity Agenda, Van Tang shares what GHD are doing to move the diversity and inclusion dial, the importance of company culture and how to maintain it in the new online workplace.

GHD is a global company with resources to match, but what are you doing on a national level to improve diversity and inclusion, which other member firms could adopt?

There’s one thing GHD has been doing in Australia that I want to implement in New Zealand, which is called the Career Re-Launch program. The Career Re-Launch program is for anyone who has had a career break for things like caring for children or family members, taking time to focus on their wellbeing or entering work in another sector. They have the opportunity to return back into our sector/industry to complete a 10-week program with the opportunity for ongoing employment. The program supports and guides people as they transition back to work allowing both the individuals and the business to work alongside each other to understand where their technical experience and their life experience lies. We also work through how each individual can integrate back into the workforce and sector, and how this suits their family and personal circumstances.

It’s been successful in Australia and I’ve seen some great colleagues come back into the workforce in that manner.

Another focus point for us, is ensuring that we have diverse panels of people during the interview process. I’m encouraging our panels to have the team leader, and then have someone from a completely different area of the business. This means we have two or three people as part of our interview process with diversity in technical abilities, experiences, gender, geography, and culture.

You’ve been described as a ‘leader of culture’. Why is a company’s culture so important? And what part does diversity and inclusion play in that?

The culture is the company. It’s as simple as that.

Culture is the sense of family and sense of belonging that our people feel as part of the organisation and it is so important to our success. Let’s be honest, we spend much of our time at work, so it’s imperative our people are aligned with the values of the company and believe they contribute to a shared purpose.

How does inclusion play its part? Well here at GHD it is all about inclusion, not just diversity. I like to describe it as; diversity is being invited to the dance, and inclusion is being asked to dance. You can’t have the benefits of diversity without inclusion. For people to be able to work towards a shared purpose they need to feel valued for their unique contribution as well as be part of something bigger.

I think we need to constantly work to be a more inclusive organisation to get the best out of our people.

How do we continue to build a positive company culture with so many of us working virtually more often?

COVID-19 pushed us into virtual working so much more rapidly than expected. It is important that we do not return to our old ways of working where meetings did not work where some attendees were virtual, and others were face to face. So as rule of thumb, we are continuing to embrace digital inclusion by hosting most of our meetings now via Teams if there is hybrid or mix of participants. Necessity is the mother of invention after all and COVID has also allowed the opportunities for our technical people regardless of where they live, to collaborate and be involved with projects delivering some great outcomes for our New Zealadnd and Pacific communities.

On the flipside, COVID also taught us the things we miss when working virtually. We know that being in a physical office environment gives our people the opportunity of hearing what’s going on through passing conversations, connecting with people that we wouldn’t normally connect with on a day-to-day basis and having access to our leadership team by simply walking across the office to speak with them. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to be visible to our people, especially our younger staff who have so much to gain from being in a physical working environment. In these new ways of working, it is important we still develop how we teach and learn in this new hybrid / virtual environment.

To continue that internal networking piece, our WING (Women in GHD) committee launched Coffee Roulette during the second week of lockdown in New Zealand. The way it works is an individual signs up and gets partnered with someone different in the business for a virtual 15-minute coffee every two weeks. This has continued well beyond returning to our physical offices and the outcomes and networking opportunities have been fantastic. We have also launched Communities through Teams where we’ve had virtual talent competitions, wellbeing challenges and hosted internal webinars. This has been especially unique in connecting our New Zealand/Pacific business with our other regions across the world.

There’s a series of infrastructure challenges facing New Zealand, which require both engineers and architects to play their part.

So aside from the social justice reasons for a company being diverse and inclusive, what are the other benefits to companies getting on board with diversity and inclusion, and how that can help New Zealand overcome these challenges?

We know that our regions and communities are growing faster than the existing infrastructure can handle and we need clever solutions to address this.  We must also reflect the communities we work in. They are diverse; therefore we need to be diverse as well.  

Diverse thinking and perspectives can break down the traditional silos of our industry to develop solutions that can futureproof our cities and regions. Diversity and inclusion breeds innovation and this will ensure we can deliver for generations to come.

What would you say to those GMs and CEs of companies who feel like they don’t need to be actively conscious of diversity and inclusion as they “just treat everybody the same”?

I would say that perhaps even if you may have never experienced being excluded or marginalised, it does not mean that others have not felt this. How one feels or responds is entirely different for everybody. I think there is an obligation for senior and executive leadership to drive continuous improvement or a culture shift if needed to gain greater inclusion and diversity in the workplace. It is essential to our success. How can we design solutions for our diverse communities, without diverse ideas and experiences bought to the design of those solutions?

We can see in our industry that we are talking about this and change is happening, but I think we could move faster.

What responsibility do you think organisations like GHD have to help the entire profession move forward?

Example and leadership in action. This can’t be a boardroom tick box exercise. It is our role as leaders to talk about it across the sector and share what we are doing to help in influencing that change. GHD have signed the Diversity Agenda Accord, have the Rainbow Tick and are regular finalists at the Diversity Works Awards, but I don’t underestimate the level of work that is still to come for both our business and the industry. I think there is an opportunity for us to share more around the actions we are taking to support diversity and inclusion and I encourage you to reach out to your fellow leaders to share what you are doing in the space.

GHD are a passionate supporter of the Diversity Agenda and a signatory of the Diversity Agenda Accord.

You’ve touched on some of the policies and initiatives that you have in place, or are looking to introduce. Is there anything else that GHD is doing which other firms could implement?

We acknowledge we have a strong foundation however we are not satisfied and we know we need to do more because we know we can do more.

Here in New Zealand and across the world, we run an innovation program for emerging leaders called Smart Seeds. It’s a fast-paced design thinking program where participants from a diverse range of organisations, with diverse experience and skills, work together to develop innovative solutions to our most complex challenges. The program promotes the value of diversity to our future leaders.  It has positioned us as an organisation that is willing to invest not only in our own future leaders, but the future leaders of our partner organisations and communities as well.

What is GHD doing in relation to growing the number of Māori engineers and architects?

We work with TupuToa and their internship programme which is designed to grow the next generation of Māori and Pasifika leaders. We are delighted to have just completed a very successful program where we will be offering all of our TupaToa interns a place on our future graduate schemes. This is a start, but there is so much more we can do in this space and a huge focus of ours going forward.

And what are your thoughts towards the migrant and refugee communities?

I think the hardest thing for migrants and refugees is the question of “do you have any New Zealand or Australian experience?” And the answer is typically no. I think there is an opportunity as an industry to change this narrative. I mentioned in Part One that refugees and migrants have come from far more congested places and they have such a unique opportunity to share solutions that they have experienced first-hand. This is why internships are so important. It gives people the experience to work in a different environment and helps them understand the business and whether you both feel it is the right fit. We’ve had some great success stories associated with this approach.

How have you found your experience of the New Zealand engineering and architecture communities since arriving from Australia?

It’s certainly been an interesting 12 months, especially given the unexpected nature of 2020. However, the experiences I have had in terms of talking to people within our business and our industry have been quite incredible. It has been very inclusive. And I thank the industry for welcoming both my family and I.


If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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