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Steelcase has long embraced social change. Now the company is working to create a blueprint to encourage other firms to actively bring migrant talent into the workforce.

The challenge of unlocking new talent pools has been growing increasingly urgent for many CEOs, as workforces face gaps in their recruitment due to the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But leading furniture designer and manufacturer Steelcase believes there is a pool of talent that is being overlooked or excluded from the recruitment process – people who can not only fill roles, but enrich the experience of co-workers and bring new perspectives to the table.

For the past five years, the company has been working with migrant communities to help them access jobs and unlock their potential. It has since extended the program and is working with Ashoka, the largest network of social entrepreneurs, and its Hello Europe initiative to help create a blueprint for other companies striving to build more inclusive workplaces.

“Our human resources lead for manufacturing in Grand Rapids in the United States reached out to a local refugee organization and asked if anyone would want to work for us,” says Donna K Flynn, Vice President of Global Talent at Steelcase.

“One of our key goals is building diverse talent through new kinds of pipelines and doing more inclusive recruiting for employees.”

“I give her all the credit. She took the initiative to really reach out to the communities and try something new.

“Now in our factories in Grand Rapids, approximately 45 percent of our employee population is under-represented racial and ethnic minorities, and a lot of them are migrants.

“We have a large group of employees from Burma, many of whom were placed in our distribution center in Kentwood. Distribution tends to be heavy work and our turnover rate is usually higher in this area than in manufacturing.

“The Burma population make up close to 20 percent of our workforce in the Kentwood RDC. They provide a tremendous amount of stability, as many of them have been with us for several years now. They are reliable and willing to help wherever needed. We are very thankful for this team.”

The migrant initiative was quietly taking shape on a local level across the business, when the death of George Floyd in 2020 led to protests and calls to action across United States and the globe. This sparked a deeper and more widespread conversation about the importance of civil rights and equality.

Flynn recalls how Steelcase took the initiative and re-evaluated and assessed how effective its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts were.

“We completely redesigned our approach and launched a whole new program with goals, measurements and systems. And one of our key goals is building diverse talent through new kinds of pipelines and doing more inclusive recruiting for employees,” Flynn says.

“That’s how we got started. A really brave HR leader who tried something new and then we reset expectations for inclusion and diverse recruiting across the company.”

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Solution

As a company, Steelcase is learning from its experiences and sharing knowledge across the company, although Flynn says Steelcase recognizes that location, community and situation play a massive role in how the scheme operates and is implemented.

It also changes according to each department within the company.

“Every location has different social dynamics and different flows of people coming in due to different political, economic or social reasons, so the methodology and the approach need to be very location specific,” she explains.

“Making sure we prioritize listening and asking questions is key to making sure working with migrants is impactful.”

“Making an effort to avoid assuming and making sure we prioritize listening and asking questions is key to making sure working with migrants is impactful.”

Flynn says the most important item is to really understand the local community to ensure both the business and the people will benefit.

“Who are the community organizations that you want to partner with? Because they are the ones on the front line,” she says. “Also, what kind of support do we need to have in place for migrant talent as we bring them on? What does that look like?”

Changing Mindsets

Steelcase already had a company culture of supporting changemakers and encouraged making a difference in local charities and projects, so the very concept of supporting migrant talent is something employees were open to and happy to develop.

Despite this positive background, Flynn recognizes that they still needed to consider making adaptations to ensure everyone was acknowledged and considered.

“Dignity and respect are core values at Steelcase, and it is really embedded and ingrained. But not everyone practices it consistently,” she explains.

“As part of our DEI efforts, we are really working hard to foster more of a culture of inclusion and drive conversation around what that means. I think that where we have brought in a lot of unconventional talent, including migrant talent, we have used different approaches that tend to be more experimental.

“It raises awareness for everyone. It humanizes people when you are working with them side by side. I don’t know if it has shifted perceptions about migrants so much as raised awareness.”

“It raises awareness for everyone. It humanizes people when you are working with them side by side.”

Aside from creating a culture of inclusion, there are multiple other factors that Steelcase has considered in this process.

Depending on the country, the team reaches out to outside agencies to ensure migrants have the legal right to work in their new home. “It’s another great role that the partner organizations can play,” Flynn says.

Another challenge is language, she explains.

“The partner organizations that we’ve worked with have helped with that transition by providing translators for the interview hiring process,” she says.

“We’ve brought interpreters into our facilities to help them learn the local language, and then some of the employees themselves become the translators over time.”

Other challenges that Flynn says companies might need to consider are transportation issues, whether clothing or a uniform should be provided and ensuring appropriate spaces for prayer.

“We need to honor those cultural needs,” she says.

Helping Others

Steelcase is documenting its successful road map in Europe in order to encourage and help other businesses hoping to follow its lead as a partner of Ashoka.

“Ashoka and Steelcase share a lot of these same principles. We share the design thinking approach, the creative thinking, the belief in social innovation and social entrepreneurship. And we share very similar methods,” Flynn says.

“What’s the system? How do we need to change different parts of the system to make it work? It has been just a joy having the teams work together. I know my teams have learned so much from working with the Ashoka team.”

“It’s helped our business, our culture. It’s enriching in many different ways.”

All of the unexpected challenges and commitment to communities have been worth the effort, and Flynn urges other companies to take this experimental approach.

“It has inspired our employees. They are people who want to give back to communities. We value social action very highly at Steelcase, and we always have. It has really been a long-standing part of our culture,” she says.

“We’ve seen complete shifts, with some of our management saying, ‘Oh no, we could never do this’. But the teams take their design thinking approach, address those barriers, and we make it happen.”

Those same managers who were skeptical at first then recognize the value, she says.

“It has helped our business, our culture,” Flynn says. “It’s enriching in many different ways.”

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