I was taught the value of migration from an early age while working at my parents’ newsagency in 1950s northern Melbourne.
My role was to appear at 7am each morning and serve newspapers to the many migrants who had moved into the area.
I would watch them grapple with the language, try to work out what two shillings was, mix up please and thank you, and occasionally, I would chuckle at them.
But I didn’t laugh for long.
Each time I did, two big fingers would grab me by the earlobe. It was my father, who would say he needed to talk to me. And he did. He constantly told me of the courage of those people. The difficulties they faced. And the skills they brought to Australia.
For me, ever since, it’s always been about how well our new Australians settle. And how well other Australians accept them and help them. Because if we can get that right, the benefits will flow from there.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the globe, Australian businesses are rebuilding and finding their way back to a new normal. As many organisations reconstruct how they work and identify what can be done remotely — or indeed differently — the question of workplace culture and relationships cannot be avoided.
Of course, every organisation and culture is different, and so are the circumstances of every individual employee. But even in the smallest business, people have been missing human connection at work — with our colleagues, clients, suppliers and industry alliances.
Business owners will be asking themselves how they can find ways to bring their people together. How their teams can thrive, not just survive.
Creating opportunities that extend beyond the usual team meeting, and which encourage people to bring a little more of themselves to work, will be important considerations.
Organisations — including large corporations and the small and medium enterprises that make up such a significant portion of the business community — will have a pivotal role to play in promoting these deeper connections.
And in order to succeed, they will need to reflect on their values and culture and on the interactions, practices and rituals that promote that culture.
Whether you’re an office, factory, worksite or shopfront, one of the aspirational pillars of workplace culture is fostering a strong level of cultural diversity.
In Australia, our diverse culture is one of our most defining characteristics, with people from over 200 different cultures who collectively speak 300 languages.
Why then, should we not focus on ensuring our workforces are just as diverse?
Research undertaken by Monash University and my own foundation has consistently shown that the vast majority of Australians have a high level of support for immigration and cultural diversity and agree that multiculturalism has been good for Australia.
Conversely, our data show one-in-five people experience discrimination at work on the basis of their skin colour, ethnic origin or religion.
And so, while we can be proud to have one of the most positive attitudes to multiculturism of all Western democracies, we still have a way to go in our workplaces.
As a businessperson, I have long recognised the strong economic case for a diverse workforce. When companies recruit and retain a diverse pool of people the gains can be extensive.
First and foremost, a company that embraces cultural diversity will immediately entice a wider pool of candidates for its job vacancies. And when businesses focus on building an inclusive work environment it demonstrates a greater respect for employees and their contributions.
Employee engagement will also improve, and when people respect each other and get along, morale increases. Absenteeism and staff turnover reduces because employees actually want to be at work.
Work outputs are also impacted. When people feel included at work, they are more productive, innovative, responsive to each other and better able to reflect and understand the needs of emerging and global markets.
This gives us the ability to expand beyond traditional markets and open up new business networks using the expert knowledge of the communities we represent. It also gives us the ability to have a more diverse set of solutions to specific problems.
Learning and understanding is often the first step to acceptance and inclusion. It’s amazing how respect for each other grows when you can open up about something as simple as where you or your parents were born or the significance of a childhood meal.
Sometimes, knowing how to approach cultural diversity in the workplace can be challenging but it’s a road worth travelling and once you get there it’s well worth celebrating.