WORK-LIFE BALANCE Celebrating Diversity – The EEO Trust Awards

Nowhere is New Zealand’s multi-ethnicity more evident than in the Auckland suburb of Mt Albert where local schools boast veritable United Nations spread of cultural diversity and new immigrants are undoubtedly comforted by the sound of their own language at the local supermarket checkout.
That they’re also more likely to find familiar food at the Mt Albert Pak’n Save is part of the creative approach to embracing the area’s diversity taken by storeowner Brian Carran. His response to the demographics of both his staff and customers has built both custom and loyalty – as well as earning his organisation the EEO Trust’s Manki Tangata Award for Innovation.
“The retail environment isn’t an easy one to offer the sort of flexible work options that help give employees the sort of work-life balance they want – people have to be there at the checkouts or stacking shelves,” comments EEO Trust CEO Philippa Reed.
“But the awards judges recognise that it’s not just about flexibility in terms of hours or location – it’s about treating people well enough in their jobs that their lives feel satisfactory.”
Which has to do with being aware and responsive to specific needs – of the work environment, of the culture, of the individual – and being flexible enough to come up with solutions that are practical for both employer and employee.
“We’ve always said that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to work-life balance,” says Reed. “For programmes to work, managers need to have lot of autonomy to make decisions. There is real emphasis on flexibility – not just in terms of giving people flexible work options but in giving managers the flexibility and responsibility to make decisions about their unit and individuals within their unit.”
That’s something more organisations are getting their heads around if this year’s entries are anything to go by. Whether due to tighter, more competitive employment market or greater awareness that employee satisfaction impacts on company performance, the number of award entrants is up, their range is more diverse and their EEO policies both well developed and more innovative. As Reed notes, this year’s judges had to work overtime to choose winners.
So what distinguished the best of the best?

Respecting difference
There’s probably not too many New Zealand organisations that have specifically designated prayer room for their Muslim employees – but that’s only one of the ways in which the Mt Albert Pak’n Save management shows its respect for the cultural diversity of its employees.
The fifth largest Kiwi supermarket in terms of its turnover, it has 320 mainly fulltime employees and has been operated by franchise owner Brian Carran since he moved to Auckland from Taumaranui six years ago. Very aware that he had shifted from bicultural to multicultural community, he learned that most of his workforce and many of his customers came from very different societies with different religious beliefs, different food requirements, little understanding of employment contracts, health and safety or food safety regulations. Often they were also sending money home to their families – and visiting them for extended periods.
Many of the staff also brought different attitudes – such as humble respect for seniors, lack of confidence to take leadership role without title, use of their own language in the workplace and slower training process because they were learning second language (English).
“These many differences make an employment relationship interesting and challenging – but not impossible,” says Carran.
Realising that adjusting to the many cultures he worked with would be more challenging than adjusting to much bigger turnover, he initially increased his own understanding of the dominant Indian culture (around 40 percent of his staff are Indian) by spending month in small Indian village with the family of colleague.
Initiatives to ensure the workplace both reflects and better caters to multi-ethnic community include things like using new immigrants on the advisory panels when considering what ethnic food to stock, allowing people to talk in their own language while working or to wear national flag on their name badge to indicate common language to customers.
Employees are allowed to accumulate holiday leave so they can take extended timeout to visit their homeland, and short-notice holidays are also allowed if family crisis demands their return home. Training takes into account language or literacy problems, and different religious traditions or practices are acknowledged and respected in the workplace. Hence the prayer room – complete with an arrow to Mecca, washing basin low and large enough to wash feet and keypad entry that allows access only to Muslims.
The first sentence in the organisation’s mission statement is “to enjoy our work” and Carran wants to ensure work is positive aspect of people’s lives.
The benefits are high staff retention and low turnover. At the time of its award entry, Mt Albert Pak’n Save had only three staff vacancies while supermarkets of comparable size would generally have around 30 to 40. With recruiting and training costs estimated at around $3000 per person, this alone represents annual savings of some $100,000.
As well, the employment stability has meant wide range of ethnic groups are now represented in leadership roles within the organisation – senior management currently includes two Chinese, four Indians, two Tongans, one Iranian and one Irishman.

Scrapping the rule book
It’s perhaps scary prospect for the control freaks among us – but one of the rules of Vector’s work-life programme is that there are no hard and fast rules. What’s required is willingness to be flexible and unafraid of doings things differently.
Formalised following the integration of Vector and UnitedNetworks in 2004, the “VectorLife” programme not only became central element for successfully managing change – it also earned the company EEO Trust’s Large Organisation Award.
One of New Zealand’s largest network infrastructure companies, Vector directly employs around 300 people who all contribute to the economically vital task of keeping power and gas networks operating efficiently and smoothly.
When VectorLife became focus for the combined companies’ newly formed executive team, they wanted the programme to be based on their belief that Vector people are intelligent, hardworking and fair minded. So all initiatives were based on philosophy that “where there is proposition that provides benefits for our people, their families and the company, we will do it”.
To ensure managers fully understood there are no rules and that they need to view every option on case-by-case basis, series of workshops was held soon after the launch for all staff and managers.
Staff were also surveyed as to what elements of work-life programme they valued most highly and the results were used to build list of benefits for inclusion in the programme.
These encompass range of options from incentive payments to flexible work options, free medical checks, flexible leave provisions and career development as well as environmental and cultural factors.
Financial benefits include such things as access to super, savings and insurance schemes, comprehensive redundancy packages, life insurance cover, preferential arrangements for mortgages and staff welfare assistance when needed.
With work flexibility, the emphasis is on working smarter rather than longer and individual arrangements include staff working from home, variable start and finish times, provision to swap shifts and the availability of part-time or job-share options.
A strong emphasis on health and wellbeing includes providing staff with an annual $300 grant to buy equipment or pay membership fees relating to exercise. Vector also has bikes on hand for those who want an exercise break, and offers full range of regular fitness and health assessments (from ergonomic to eyesight checks),

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