How to create an inclusive culture in a start-up

Organisational cultures are a vital aspect within any organisation, defining how the company and its people operate and interact with each other to achieve their goals. However, creating an inclusive culture is no easy feat, especially in a start-up environment with constantly shifting priorities.

For the latest instalment of our Diversity and Inclusion interview series, we speak to Harmen Veling, Director of People and Operations, Netherlands at Talespin, a leader in immersive learning development, on what it takes to establish and foster an inclusive culture in a start-up and the changes the business has seen during the pandemic. Since joining the business 18 months ago, Harmen has witnessed significant growth in their product roadmap as well as in the wider team. He shares advice on how start-ups can ensure that their culture is inclusive of everyone.

What would you say is the best way to establish a culture in the start-up environment?

An organisation’s values and beliefs are at the core of the organisational culture; it is what unites a company. When trying to establish a culture, this should be kept at the forefront. The values and beliefs should be true and defined as a collective by the entire organisation, not just senior leadership. However, leadership plays an important role. If they do not champion what the organisation believes in, this can create misunderstanding and misalignment. 

Start-ups operate much differently to larger organisations like Google, Amazon, or Facebook. This may not necessarily be a fit for everyone, and that’s important for everyone to keep in mind; employer and potential employees alike. Start-ups are constantly evolving, requiring the workforce to adapt with it. Typically, start-ups have limited resources, and team members can be required to do things differently than what they have done before. For some people, this works well. For others, it may distract them from their core task focus. 

At Talespin, we are in a unique and emerging industry. The ‘norm’ within the industry is not well-established, where clients, partners, or new team members have certain expectations on how we will, or should operate. We have the flexibility to build something different together. We can create Talespin with no limitations from customs that other industries or organisations abide by. And we’re taking that opportunity! 

Establishing a culture is not an easy task, and shortcuts should not be taken. You want to create something that you are proud of in the long-term. 

Diversifying a workforce can sometimes be seen as easier than creating a sense of belonging. How were you able to do this at Talespin?

Diversifying a workforce, and creating a sense of belonging go hand-in-hand. For employees to truly feel a sense of belonging within the organisation, they must feel included.

Championing diversity, in all shapes and forms, is vital to providing an environment of belonging. Belonging enables you to feel free to be who you are. It is our job at Talespin to provide that environment, promote growth, and support the team on their journey.

Our focus has been, and continues to be, on providing an environment for all team members to feel comfortable at work; diversifying a workforce and creating a sense of belonging falls under that umbrella.

A key benefit of learning within XR is that it provides a ‘safe place to fail.’ We’re trying to bring that into our everyday work environment, allowing people to be comfortable with pushing their boundaries. By pushing what they think is possible and continually working towards bettering themselves, they gain a greater attachment to their work, which is an important part of their role within the organisation.

What would you say is the biggest takeaway that you learned in the past year?

Sometimes you need a force to demand change. This may not always be what you want, and can feel difficult in the moment, but it can be a great thing to push you out of your comfort zone. We sometimes get indulged in the granular things, or become accustomed to doing things in a certain way. Sometimes we lose sight of the bigger picture. Covid forced us to take that step back, reassess, and readjust how we work. 

The future of work has been, and will continue to be, something that we all try to prepare for. With automation and technology playing a significant role in the workplace,traditional roles are changing. Many people have been, and may still be, concerned about this shift and the adjustments required. This past year showed the strength of the workforce, and proved that we are ready for the future and whatever it may throw our way.

My greatest takeaway has been seeing the strength of individuals. My role is focused on our people, and I’ve had the opportunity to see first-hand how they have adjusted. The shift that we have all made is not one to be taken lightly. We navigated through 2020 well, and it will be a great achievement to make it out the other side.

What challenges did you face when going remote and how did you retain the sense of belonging?

There was a learning curve to determine what is most effective. What works best for one person, may not work for another, especially differences between departments. We were in constant communication with each department Lead to gauge what was or wasn’t working, and what needed to happen to justify the situation. Unfortunately, some people did have difficulty adjusting to the new normal, and they needed some extra support. For some, this was a scattered work schedule so they could manage home-schooling for their children, for others it was planning informal meetings to catch up with their colleagues. We approached this on a case-by-case basis, and worked with the individual and/or teams to do what was best for them.

Although we made the shift to remote in a drastically accelerated timeline – our values and beliefs didn’t, and haven’t changed. At Talespin, we are building the immersive learning development platform to reimagine the future of work.  We are continually working towards this goal, together. This shared incentive is what unites us. Our values and beliefs are crucial to achieving our vision, and we’ve made sure to continue to champion our values and beliefs as we strive to create a better tomorrow. 

It’s important that leadership is involved in driving DEI efforts. From your experience, how did you do this and what advice would you give to businesses?

Change within any organisation starts from the top down, making leadership support imperative to successfully facilitating an open and inclusive work environment. Their example sets the tone for how we communicate about important and at times challenging and sensitive topics that impact our employees beyond the workplace.

At Talespin, we’re fortunate to have a leadership team who are true believers in equality, and communicate openly about DEI topics. Their ‘open door’ policy to all employees on these subjects establishes a precedent that every Talespin team member has the opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns – with the full support of their team around them. We foster and encourage employees to share in many ways: as formal as at our monthly company town hall meetings, or privately via Slack messages or during direct communication in meetings (currently remote, previously in-person).

My advice to other businesses and their leadership is to ensure that the DEI initiatives are established by the larger organisation, and that leadership champions and prioritises those efforts with their own actions. We look to our leadership teams for guidance, and making sure they lead by example ensures you set the right tone that best reflects your organisation. 

How do you incorporate feedback into your culture? How does each employee contribute?

Continuing the work of cultivating our culture while navigating the transition to working from home, while simultaneously introducing our DEI initiatives would not be possible if we hadn’t incorporated feedback from everybody across the organisation. An organisation will not be successful if you do not take the feedback of all employees into account.

As a small-to-medium and growing organisation, it is crucial for us to take into account the input and insights of everyone. We are scaling at a rapid rate, and getting input from various team members is what helps us ensure we are taking the right steps in the right direction towards what our employees need. 

Asking questions is something we have found to be extremely important to our employees and valuable to our decision-making process. We emphasise this during the recruitment process with open communication in our meetings, and email communication. This is continued right through to onboarding – where new team members are paired with another employee to help them get integrated into the Talespin environment. 

Working in an agile environment helps to incorporate input and feedback from the team on a daily basis. 

What would you say are the main things that businesses should prioritise to create an inclusive culture?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of ‘culture’ is: “The way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time”. Ultimately, a truly inclusive culture is created through the people within an organisation. Ensuring all employees are involved and heard in every way helps us establish the norms of our culture and who we are to each other. 

Secondly, sharing and embracing our differences has been enlightening and inspiring. We all have different backgrounds that have formed who we are, and define our individual strengths within. To leverage those differences and incorporate them into the culture and day-to-day operations, has helped us build something substantial.

Our people are our greatest asset. We take pride in celebrating what makes us unique and using those attributes as our strengths. 

As an organisation with two offices, how do you create consistency across the board and make sure that it is culturally balanced?

While our teams are spread across the United States and Europe, at our core we are one company. Each team member has something different to offer, based on their personal and professional experience. We respect and celebrate the different cultures and customs between locations, but always remember what makes us one.

Alignment across the company as a whole is driven by the People Operations team. It is our responsibility to implement standards that can promote growth, and celebrate differences – while keeping the company goals in mind. The People Operations team is constantly in close contact with each other, but also team leads and team members. Being a crucial part of the recruitment and onboarding process, we can ensure that all team members have the support they need to champion our values and beliefs, while their personal values are also respected. 

Our monthly town hall meeting, or ‘All Hands’ as we call it, is a great way for us to communicate the important topics and ensure alignment. There are very few instances for us to bring everyone together, but when we do – it’s important to celebrate our work and our people.  

George Floyd’s murder changed the conversation and the action towards DEI in the workplace and across the world. What effect did this have on Talespin and what was your approach?

The unjust murder of George Floyd was a traumatic loss that was felt across the world and the event that we were all forced to witness happened, that is still happening, can no longer be ignored.

The tragedy also spurred a global movement for the rights of Black lives, requiring us to re-examine how we define and confront inequality across the board – including race, gender, religion and more. The incident also triggered different types of trauma and pain for some of our employees, shining a light on an opportunity for us to create a space and way for our people to connect and heal. With that in mind, we created the Talespin Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Accountability Committee (DICA). 

This committee, built entirely by employees from across the business, is tasked with helping push the company’s cultural accountability initiatives forward, and conduct an audit of our systems and norms (e.g., recruitment efforts, interviewing, performance assessment, education, values, and meetings).

Under the guidance of an organisational culture consultant, we have hosted three training sessions on Emotional Intelligence, Unconscious Bias, and Microaggressions since May 2020 and have plans for more. In these sessions, which were mandatory for all employees to attend, we established a safe space for employees to share their experiences, safely examine their blind spots, and learn from each other as well as the professionals. 

Our goal at Talespin is to build a company that could serve as an example for societies and organisations across the globe. While we have much more work to do, I believe our efforts are exemplified in what we have been able to create through the Talespin DICA Committee and I look forward to growth to come.

About Talespin

Talespin is building the spatial computing platform to power talent development and skills mobility for the future of work. Founded in 2015, the company leverages its proprietary XR technology platform to deliver XR-based learning and training applications, mixed reality field tools to support employee job performance, and a new skills-based approach to work and productivity. With offices in Los Angeles and Utrecht, The Netherlands, Talespin is building a future of work where the distance between learning and execution is collapsed, enabling people to explore unique career paths that meet the needs of both businesses and individuals.

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