Fresh takes on diversity and inclusion


At Wolff Olins we build radically better businesses, and we can’t do that without inviting in and celebrating different perspectives. It’s in our DNA. From creating the 2012 “Everyone Olympic” brand to reconfiguring Zocdoc’s experience around the patient, our work’s for people from all walks of life.

This means a diverse workforce is crucial for us, and has been since we started back in the sixties. We work in teams, plugging each other’s blind spots, driving out unconscious bias (especially with technology playing an increasingly prominent role in our process), and using confrontation productively to reach truly innovative solutions for our clients.   

Right now, diversity’s a hot button issue on a global scale – see James Damore and the Google memo for a case in point. Businesses are pushing hard to shake up recruitment tactics and change the shape of their organizations. To explore this area, we recently hosted summits in Palo Alto and San Francisco in collaboration with Watermark, the Bay Area’s largest membership organization dedicated to increasing the number of women in leadership positions.

The conversation, with contributors from Tesla, Atlassian, Salesforce and Intel among others, was deep and wide-ranging, and left us with these lessons:

Reframe diversity as the power of difference
Diversity is a loaded term and people have preconceptions about what it actually means. This can be a hindrance. To get around it, it’s worth unpacking what it means at its best and reframing it in that light. We believe in the value of diversity because it helps us leverage the power of difference. Thinking about it in this way shines new light on what it can do for employees, for companies, and for society more broadly. What would it mean to build internal cultures that champion and encourage difference? There’s lots to learn from the likes of Zymergen, where founders are baking in this kind of thinking from day one.

Acknowledge the difference that’s already there
It’s valuable to remember that all of us, as individuals, have a different perspective. That’s not to say that there aren’t challenging issues of representation and equality to address – rather it means starting from a place where everyone feels safe and able to take part of the conversation. By doing this, ‘us and them’ language subsides and we can be patient with one another, asking ‘how do we come together to tackle these problems?’

Push beyond including, towards belonging
Fostering a dialogue about diversity and inclusion in the workplace requires EQ, but perhaps more importantly, it requires us to understand the importance of belonging. Organizations can recruit ‘blindly’, be intentional about hiring widely, and enable diverse talent to have a voice in the conversation, but do they really make them feel like they belong to the tribe? This is the key to lasting and meaningful change, and it has to be nurtured – as it is at Airbnb, explained here by its Global Head of Community. To this point, one of our panelists drew on Maya Angelou’s famous quote, ‘It’s not what you say or do, it’s how you make people feel’.

Address the generational elephant in the room
The value judgements we place on certain generations about their attitude to work/life balance and communication skills make things harder than they ought to be. For the first time in the modern age, many workplaces play home to five generations. When digital natives, gen Y, gen X, boomers and traditionalists share a space, it creates healthy tensions – and that’s what diversity’s all about. With this in mind, how can we recognize, and park, judgements? And how can we help cross-generational relationships thrive?

Turn sponsorship upside down
Sponsors or mentors advocate for and help others find out about someone’s capabilities. When leaders and executives make juniors visible, it’s powerful. But what if we flipped the top down approach and thought about sponsoring our peers, our seniors even? One of our contributors, Sandra Lopez from Intel, spoke to Elle about this idea earlier this year. We all have lots to learn from one another, and by encouraging this kind of culture, an organization can empower more people and, at the same time, nurture a real meritocracy.

We’re now using these questions to push our own thinking, and we’ll continue talking. What’s your organization’s approach to diversity and what’s working well? Let us know.   


By Emilie Lasseron and Nomzamo Majuqwana


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