Inclusion leads to innovation: how Atkins enables brilliant minds to flourish

Emma Sheppard

With an estimated 75m jobs expected to be displaced by 2022, and 133m new roles created by new technology, businesses are looking to address the growing skills gap in an increasing number of ways. Research has found diversity is a key driver of innovation, as teams with a mix of ethnicities, ages, backgrounds, education and skills produce better results. At Atkins, championing the strengths of a diverse, inclusive workforce starts at the recruitment phase and stretches right through an employee’s career.

Measures such as encouraging flexible working – including term-time working, job shares, career sabbaticals, home working and the ability to buy more annual leave – have opened up opportunities for male and female members of staff. There’s a reverse mentoring scheme, whereby senior leaders are mentored by junior staff to gain new insights into the business. And there are eight staff-led networks, supporting LGBT+ rights, disability, BAME employees, neurodiversity, parents and more. It’s all intended to ensure that everyone is empowered to achieve their potential at work.

Structural engineer Louise Hetherington doesn’t have a disability. But when she was asked to co-chair Atkins’ Enable network in 2019, she was happy to do so. “If we’re heading to an equal workplace for all, we should be addressing the issues of every minority group,” she says.

The network provides assistance to employees with disabilities or those who care for people with disabilities. It works with line managers to make reasonable adjustments in the office, and with the HR team to ensure the recruitment process is accessible. Any applicant, for example, who has a disability or identifies as being neurodiverse now automatically gets an interview as long as they meet the job’s minimum requirements. Partly as a consequence of the network’s efforts, the company was recently named a Disability Confident Committed employer. “We’re trying to break down the stigma,” Hetherington adds. “And I think I’ve seen an improvement over the three and a half years I’ve been at Atkins.”

Another engineer, Caroline Norris, championed and led on an internship initiative at the company. It gives up to six people, who are unemployed and have a physical or mental disability, the chance to work at Atkins for a year. She has also been raising awareness of neurodiversity, which includes autistic spectrum conditions, dyslexia and ADHD. She created the neurodiversity network and has advocated for changes that are inclusive to the neurodiverse (many of whom are undiagnosed). These changes include altering the interview process, introducing quiet rooms and providing support materials such as visual building guides. Above all, she has realised the benefits of having a workforce that thinks in different ways.

“As a business you don’t want a lot of new ideas that are very similar to the norm,” she says. “You can really capitalise on the exceptional creative abilities of the neurodiverse if you can make your workplace adaptable to the needs that can come with those skills.”

Rosina Simmons, a mechanical engineer in the energy business, and Claire Mitchell, delivery manager for a nuclear power plant project, both sit on the committee of Equilibrium, the LGBT+ network. Since launching in 2016, its achievements include producing the company’s first Trans Equality and Transitioning in the Workplace Policy, running workshops and webinars for clients, senior leaders and colleagues, and taking part in Pride marches around the UK. There’s a mentoring programme planned for 2020, and the committee is also aiming to break into the top 200 of the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index this year.

“I received some insults when I came out in my old company,” says Mitchell. “But my entire team here asks about my girlfriend, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world, which it is, and frankly I don’t have the brainpower to try to hide [who I am] on top of doing my normal job and managing 150 people.”

“What we’re trying to do is just normalise the conversation around [being LGBT+],” Simmons adds. “It’s important to feel like you can be your genuine self at work.”

Assistant civil engineer Ikram Hamud agrees. She’s part of the company’s BAME forum, which meets every week. Part of her work has included raising the profile of senior BAME individuals at Atkins through a series of articles, and visiting local schools as one of 600 Stem Ambassadors to encourage girls and others from BAME backgrounds. “We use the slogan: You can’t be what you can’t see,” Hamud says. “Atkins is quite diverse and there are a lot of BAME individuals coming into the company now. It’s about being inclusive. A lot of people might ask: ‘What percentage of black people do you have?’ But it’s a big thing for an individual to come into the office and not think: ‘I’m black, I’m wearing a scarf and I’m female’.”

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Offshore structural engineer Xiaoshuang Tian joined Atkins two and a half years ago and has been reverse mentoring Andy Thompson, the director of offshore wind, for the past 18 months. They’re two participants on the reverse mentoring scheme Atkins is piloting across the UK. Tian says that meeting with Thompson each month has increased her confidence dramatically. “I started to believe that I do have the ability to deliver excellent work,” she says. “Andy took my suggestions and made change happen. I was so proud … feedback isn’t just from top to bottom. It can be from bottom to top.”

Thompson says he would recommend the experience to anybody in his position. “For me, it’s been a reinforcement that the minds we’ve got on every level are just brilliant, and that sometimes you need to give a bit of encouragement for those minds to flourish.”

Helping people thrive in the energy industry, regardless of gender, is something Karen Blanc, UK operations director for oil, gas and renewables, is also working towards as chair of the Aberdeen X-Industry Support Network (AXIS). The non-profit group has recruited 32 local organisations (including Atkins), which have pledged to take action on equal pay, equal leadership and equal opportunities. While it is a volunteer role outside of the company, Blanc says she’s taken a lot from her day job, including how to make flexible working work. “Something about Atkins has allowed me to thrive,” she says of the nine years she’s spent at the company. “I think it’s allowing everyone to feel like they belong and that they’re valued for however and whoever they are at work.”