Building a diversity committee is a tall order. Arup talks with Sabrina Zolkifi about its experience in creating an LGBT network in its Singapore office.

When Alex Morris, a member of Arup’s diversity committee, relocated to Singapore from the engineering firm’s London office three years ago, he wasn’t expecting to continue his work within the company’s diversity space.

Morris was part of a team of people who set up the Connect Out LGBT staff network, which was based largely on a pre-existing model focused on promoting gender diversity called Connect Women.

“When I came to Singapore, we weren’t doing Connect Out in Singapore. LGBT was always on the agenda, but I think we weren’t sure how to go about it.”

Since his move here, Morris has successfully launched one event under Connect Out, which he says “has been a very positive experience.”

“I think it’s a great story about how we went from nothing [in Singapore] to having a very successful event within a six-month period, especially in a country where you don’t expect to do something like that.”

The event in question was an LGBT networking session Arup hosted last year in conjunction with Pink Dot, a not-for-profit organisation aimed at promoting LGBT rights in Singapore.

That first Connect Out event in Singapore had three main goals - correcting misconceptions, breaking down barriers and building understanding.

All for one

“The way we went about this event was to market it as a general interest event, and I went around to everyone I personally knew in the office to explain what the event was about, why they should attend, and how they too had a role to play in creating an inclusive workplace,” Morris says.

Everybody is responsible for creating that, and if people see that as a responsibility then they can make a big difference.
Pushing for greater diversity efforts within the company was aligned to his belief that diversity and inclusion within the professional space is a key part of business development.

“You know a happy worker is a productive worker, and ultimately, that’s going to have a positive impact on our bottom line.

“Productivity, innovation, staff retention, acquisition of talent, efficiency and effectiveness improves; being happy is not just about how much an individual is paid.”

Morris admits Arup has been fortunate in terms of diversity, and that it is something which stems from the company’s founder, Ove Arup, who gave a speech in 1970 which has now become the company’s constitution.

“It’s something everyone is given when they join the firm, and they are expected to understand that we’re not just here to make money; we are, as our tagline says, shaping a better world.”

Having that foundation attracts the right types of employee into the organisation, which makes a huge difference when it comes to building an accepting and inclusive culture.

Taking baby steps

Even then, Morris was careful in the execution of his first Connect Out event here, adding one of the bigger challenges he faced in the planning stages was determining what could and could not be done within the LGBT space in Singapore.

“We had a six-month build up period, during which I would do a blog post every couple of weeks on our intranet about something LGBT-related. People knew I had joined the committee because they’d see a blog post occasionally, so more and more people were aware, even if they were not talking about it.”

The plans for the event were also raised at a diversity group meeting, along with other strands of diversity, “which I think is important because you don’t want too much emphasis on it right at the beginning”.

While Morris says the internal marketing of the event didn’t get much reception, he did not see it as something negative. Rather, he took it as a sign that they were “not really upsetting anybody”.

That wasn’t the biggest challenge we faced, but I think it was very important to go through those stages to confirm that yes, we can now do something like this here.
Moving forward, Morris is looking at incorporating corporate social responsibility programmes into the firm’s diversity efforts, and has been speaking to a social outfit here called Empact, which aims to pair skilled volunteers with charities.

“It started out with getting finance people to help out with the accounts of the charities; there’s no point in getting an accountant to dole out bowls of soup when that accountant can be giving a lot more to the charity by doing work in his own field.

“We’re now working with Empact to see what skills we have in the office which charities might need."