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Study Finds Equality at Work Can Drive Innovation

Study Finds Equality at Work Can Drive Innovation
Credit: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

A workplace culture that engenders an equal playing field for all employees could be beneficial from more than just an ethical standpoint. According to research by Accenture, establishing equality among employees could also drive innovation and growth.

Released earlier today, Accenture's Getting to Equal 2019 report found that American employees were nearly 500 percent more likely to embrace an innovative mindset at companies that foster a culture of equality.

"In this era of widespread disruption, businesses and organizations need to respond with continuous innovation to succeed," said Julie Sweet, the study's co-author and CEO of Accenture North America. "Our research makes it clear that tapping the power of workplace culture is essential to unleashing innovation across the company."

Accenture said its latest study was conducted with a three-pronged approach of collecting data from "a survey of more than 18,000 professionals in 27 countries, a survey of more than 150 C-suite executives in eight countries and a model that combines employee survey results with published labor force data" between November and December 2018.

Officials said the company's findings build on a 2018 research effort that identified 40 pro-equality workplace factors and grouped them into three categories: Bold Leadership, Comprehensive Action and Empowering Environment.

Ellyn Shook, co-author of the study and Accenture's chief leadership and human resources officer, said equality in the workplace "has never been more critical for driving innovation" because it gives everyone a boost to their self-confidence.

"If people feel a sense of belonging and are valued by their employers for their unique contributions, perspectives and circumstances, they are more likely to advance and feel empowered to innovate," she said.

Looking back on their research from last year, Sweet and Shook reported that, of the three previously mentioned categories, creating an empowering environment was "by far the most important" for nurturing an innovative mindset. They also found that, in order to create such an environment, six elements must be present for employees: purpose, autonomy, resources, inspiration, collaboration and experimentation.

American employees who reported working in "robust cultures of equality" were more likely to say there were no barriers for innovation (44 percent) than those who worked in less-than-equal environments (6 percent). Employees in equal-work environments were also less afraid to fail in the pursuit of innovation (85 percent) than those who worked in the least-equal office cultures (36 percent). [Related: Tech That Enables a More Diverse Talent Pool]

In their study, Sweet and Shook wrote that "against every factor we tested, culture wins."

While there was consensus that equality in the workplace was important for innovative ideas to thrive, the study found a disconnect between C-suite executives and employees as to whether the former empowered the latter to seek innovative solutions. Among global executive respondents, 76 percent said they strove to empower employees, while 45 percent of employees agreed. The study argues that, in the apparent difference in opinion, "executives appear to overestimate financial rewards, and underestimate purpose, as motivations for employees to innovate."

According to the study, the strongest factors in a more equal culture include "providing relevant skills training, flexible working arrangements and respect for work-life balance."

Accenture's study also found that a diverse, equal work culture – and the innovation it fosters – could have an economic impact.

Among respondents, the survey found people in equal work environments were more willing to innovate in quickly growing economies and countries with high labor-productivity growth. If that innovation mindset was prioritized by 10 percent across the planet, Accenture estimates that the global gross domestic product would jump to $8 trillion within a decade.

When it comes to increasing innovation through culture, Accenture's study suggests there's no substitute for systemic workplace culture changes. To highlight that point, Sweet and Shook said they tested how much a workplace's innovation mindset changed with a 10 percent pay increase versus a 10 percent increase in workplace culture. Average pay increases were only 0.25 percent more effective at improving workplace culture than changing workplace culture factors (10.6 percent).

The study also found that company culture had a greater impact on innovation than having employees with STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) or advanced degrees.

Andrew Martins

Andrew Martins is an award-winning journalist with a BA in journalism from Ramapo College of New Jersey. Before joining Business.com and Business News Daily, he wrote for a regional publication and served as the managing editor for six weekly papers that spanned four counties. He is a New Jersey native and a first-generation Portuguese-American, and he has a penchant for the nerdy.