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AIDE: Assessing Accessibility to Improve Institutional Dynamics and Employee Experiences


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Making Employment, Promotion, and Opportunities Accessible

We know that organizations that prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility are better positioned to attract top talent, foster innovation, and build resilience but amidst a polarized political climate and economic uncertainty, many companies are re-evaluating their approach to DEI. Forward-thinking leaders have an opportunity to reframe the conversation and drive lasting culture change. This is why we have been developing the AIDE framework which offers a roadmap for assessing and dismantling barriers to full participation and belonging.


Why Now is the Time to Reassess Corporate Culture Through the Lens of Accessibility

In the wake of the Supreme Court's affirmative action ruling in June of 2023, a conservative backlash against corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, and economic uncertainty leading to layoffs that have disproportionately impacted DEI roles many companies are re-evaluating their approach to fostering inclusive workplace cultures. While some business leaders are scaling back visible DEI initiatives to avoid litigation risk or public criticism, others argue that sustaining a focus on diversity remains essential for attracting top talent, sparking innovation, and serving an increasingly diverse customer base.


Amidst this polarized landscape, forward-thinking organizations have an opportunity to reframe the conversation around DEI by taking a more holistic, proactive approach centered on the concept of accessibility. Rather than reacting to external pressures by dismantling programs, companies can conduct comprehensive assessments to identify and dismantle barriers that prevent employees of all backgrounds from fully participating and thriving in the workplace.


Expanding the definition of accessibility beyond accommodations for people with disabilities, to encompass the myriad ways that workplace structures, policies, and cultural norms can inadvertently exclude people based on race, gender identity, age, socioeconomic status, and other facets of identity, opens up new avenues for cultivating a genuine sense of belonging. When accessibility becomes the foundation, initiatives that improve the ability recruit and empower talent from underrepresented groups are less likely to be perceived as zero-sum "special treatment" that breeds resentment.


The process of assessing accessibility across all dimensions of the employee lifecycle - from hiring systems to professional development programs to team dynamics - also provides a framework for understanding institutional dynamics, or the complex web of factors shaping behavior and power structures within an organization. Viewed through the SIO (Social, Ideological, Operational) Culture Model, improving accessibility in areas like mentoring opportunities (Social), workplace policies (Ideological), and collaborative technology platforms (Operational) can profoundly impact employee experiences and overall culture.


For example, conducting an audit of promotion criteria and ensuring clear, transparent pathways for advancement demonstrates a commitment to equity and inclusivity at a structural level. Offering inclusive benefits like paid parental leave and mental health support sends a message that employees can bring their whole selves to work. Embracing universal design principles, like closed captioning on all videos, benefits not just Deaf employees but anyone watching in a noisy environment.


Implemented effectively, an accessibility-driven approach to culture improvement has the potential to sidestep backlash by allowing diversity to become an outcome rather than the focus of the work. When people of all identities feel valued and experience a genuine sense of belonging, retention and engagement rise. Workplaces become more resilient and adaptable in the face of change. Companies that reflect the diversity of the world are better equipped to innovate for the future.


Of course, this type of transformational culture change is complex and requires a sustained commitment from leadership. But at a time of retrenchment in traditional DEI, leaning into workplace accessibility assessments to pinpoint and remove barriers offers an opportunity to both mitigate legal risk and drive positive impact. Companies willing to invest in the challenging yet crucial work of making space for everyone to contribute and thrive will be strongly positioned to attract and retain the diverse talent needed to succeed.   


Our answer to this is AIDE: Assessing Accessibility to Improve Institutional Dynamics and Employee Experiences.

The AIDE framework provides a structured process for organizations to take a data-driven, human-centered approach to identifying and dismantling barriers to inclusion and belonging. By expanding the definition of accessibility beyond disability accommodations to encompass all the ways workplace structures can inadvertently exclude, AIDE empowers companies to cultivate institutional dynamics that enable people of all backgrounds to thrive.


Accessibility: Expanding the Definition for Inclusive Workplaces

Accessibility is often narrowly defined in terms of accommodating disabilities to meet compliance standards. Features like ramps, automatic doors, braille signage, and screen readers make environments usable for people with certain physical and sensory impairments. However, creating truly inclusive workplaces requires expanding our understanding of accessibility.


At its core, accessibility means identifying and dismantling barriers that prevent people from fully participating, contributing, feeling safe, and thriving in their workplaces. This involves assessing how the design of environments, technologies, programs, policies, and cultural norms may inadvertently exclude people based on factors like race, gender identity, age, size, language, socioeconomic class, and other dimensions of diversity - in addition to disability. The goal is to evolve workplace structures to be more equitable and human-centered.


When accessibility is viewed through this broader lens, it has a profound impact on institutional dynamics and the employee experience. Inaccessible opportunities, environments, and communications lead to exclusion, frustration, lower engagement and productivity, and higher turnover among affected employees. In contrast, proactive accessibility initiatives signal that all employees are valued for their unique talents and perspectives. This cultivates a culture of belonging where each person can reach their full potential and drive the organization forward.


Understanding Institutional Dynamics

To wrap your head around how accessibility shapes the employee experience, it's important to understand the concept of institutional dynamics in the context of workplace culture. Institutional dynamics refer to the complex interplay of formal and informal rules, norms, values, and power structures that influence behavior and interactions within an organization.

The SIO (Social, Ideological, Operational) Culture Model provides a framework for analyzing institutional dynamics across three key dimensions:


  1. Social Culture focuses on identity-based factors like diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, authenticity, and psychological safety.

  2. Ideological Culture encompasses the values, beliefs, and principles that drive the organization, including hierarchy, authority, communication, collaboration, and efficiency.

  3. Operational Culture focuses on how work gets done, including elements like innovation, productivity, agility, ethics, community involvement, and employee wellbeing.


The 9 Principles of Employee Care further illuminate how institutional dynamics shape the employee experience:


  1. Human Relationships: Emphasizing the importance of fostering meaningful connections, support networks, and a sense of community belonging among colleagues.

  2. Human Respect: Demonstrating value for each person's inherent dignity and unique perspective, skills and background.

  3. Human Relevance: Aligning roles, projects and growth paths to individual strengths, interests and goals.

  4. Human Recognition: Implementing equitable and inclusive means of acknowledging contributions and achievements.

  5. Human Responsibility: Providing clear expectations and resources to empower ownership over outcomes.

  6. Human Routines: Structuring work processes to support focus, flexibility, and sustainable performance.

  7. Human Readiness: Offering robust onboarding, training and mentoring to set employees up for success.

  8. Human Records: Documenting policies, performance and progress transparently to ensure fair treatment.

  9. Human Representation: Building leadership and decision-making teams that reflect workforce diversity.


Understanding Employee Culture Experiences

Applying the SIO Culture Model and 9 Principles of Employee Care as a lens for examining employee experiences across identities reveals how aspects of institutional dynamics can generate disparate impacts:


  • Lack of representation and inclusive facilities can make underrepresented groups feel unwelcome (Social/Representation)

  • Prohibitive time-off policies disadvantage employees with health issues or family care duties (Ideological/Responsibility)

  • Inaccessible software excludes people with certain disabilities from core work functions (Operational/Readiness)

  • Non-inclusive event formats and team bonding activities can sideline people from connecting (Social/Relationships)

  • Unclear or biased advancement criteria perpetuates homogeneity in leadership (Ideological/Recognition)

  • Overwork expectations derail personal routines key to mental health and engagement (Operational/Routines)


Viewed through this framework, enhancing accessibility emerges as a key lever for transforming institutional dynamics and harmonizing employee experiences organization-wide. An accessibility-based approach pinpoints tangible opportunities to restructure the workplace in ways that eliminate systemic barriers to individual and collective thriving. The result is a culture that empowers every employee to contribute their full potential.


Implementing an Accessibility Assessment Process

Conducting an organization-wide accessibility assessment through the AIDE (Assess, Interview, Develop, Engage) process paves the way for data-driven improvements:

Assessment begins with an in-depth Organizational Culture Quality Assessment aligned with the SIO model. Survey analysis identifies "permitted cultures" that may be misaligned with stated values and pinpoints inclusion barriers across social, ideological and operational dimensions as opportunities for improvement.


Interviews and focus groups, especially with underrepresented employee populations, supplement survey data with qualitative insights. This reveals how employees experience the workplace differently based on their identities and uncovers systemic obstacles to equity.

Development of action plans translates findings into targeted initiatives to address problematic cultural elements and inclusion barriers. This may involve adjustments to policies, processes, benefits, programs, physical environments, and cultural norms to increase accessibility for all. Education and communications underscore leadership's commitment to change.


Engaging employees in implementation through project teams and continuous listening fosters buy-in and sustainable culture shifts. Progress is quantified through follow-up assessments.


The Business Case for Inclusive Accessibility

In a global market where innovation stems from embracing diverse perspectives, enhancing workplace accessibility is both an ethical imperative and a competitive differentiator. The wide-ranging business benefits of an accessibility-driven culture change include:


Attracting Top Talent: In a 2020 survey by Glassdoor, 76% of job seekers said a diverse workforce is an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers. As the labor market tightens amidst changing demographics, companies that create inclusive environments accessible to all talent will have a critical edge in recruitment and retention.


Driving Engagement & Productivity: A sense of belonging is key to unlocking employee engagement. Harvard Business Review research shows that employees with a strong sense of belonging exhibit a 56% increase in job performance and a 50% reduction in turnover risk.  By dismantling barriers to participation and contribution, accessible workplaces enable more employees to find purpose and hit peak productivity.


Sparking Innovation: Homogeneity breeds stagnation, while diversity breeds ingenuity. Teams that reflect a mix of backgrounds and abilities are better equipped to spot unmet needs in underserved markets. One study found that companies with above-average diversity produced a greater proportion of revenue from innovation (45% of total) than from companies with below average diversity (26%). Accessible structures set the stage for "diversity of thought" to flourish.


Expanding Customer Reach: Accessible products and services are usable by a wider range of people across age, language, culture, gender, socioeconomic status, and abilities. Eliminating barriers in employee-facing systems builds capacity to identify opportunities to make customer offerings more universally accessible as well. Inclusive design philosophies pay dividends by increasing the total addressable market.


Strengthening Reputation & Social Impact: Companies that take a proactive, expansive approach to accessibility position themselves as trailblazers in social responsibility. Eliminating barriers signals commitment to the often marginalized communities, engendering goodwill and brand loyalty. Ethical reputation matters to stakeholders; one third of consumers today choose to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good.


Most importantly, taking a proactive approach to identify and dismantle systemic barriers advances the fundamental values of respect, equity, and human dignity in the workplace. When each person is empowered to bring their full authentic selves to work, the organization can reach its highest collective potential. Making accessibility the foundation for an inclusive culture is not only the right thing to do - it's the smart thing to do.


Ready for some AIDE?

Contact us today to begin your Assessing Accessibility to Improve Institutional Dynamics and Employee Experiences journey!


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