Article: Leading with heart: Deloitte’s Chief Happiness Officer on strengthening workplace inclusivity


Leading with heart: Deloitte’s Chief Happiness Officer on strengthening workplace inclusivity

In conversation with Saraswathi Kasturirangan of Deloitte India, we explore her innovative approach to workplace dynamics, hybrid work models, inclusive leadership, and the strategic use of technology to advance diversity.
Leading with heart: Deloitte’s Chief Happiness Officer on strengthening workplace inclusivity

In an ever-evolving landscape of workplace dynamics, a steadfast commitment to gender inclusivity, innovation, and hybrid work models has risen to prominence. Leading this charge is Saraswathi Kasturirangan, the trailblazing Chief Happiness Officer at Deloitte India, a role she pioneered in April 2023. Fondly referred to as Saras, she is an outspoken advocate for gender balance, equality, holistic well-being, and cultivating a joyous and stress-free work environment.

As the orchestrator of happiness, Saraswathi oversees various facets that contribute to workforce well-being, spanning physical and mental health, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives encompassing gender, LGBTQIA+ inclusion, disability, and neurodiversity, as well as employee engagement. As an indispensable member of Deloitte India's national leadership, she ensures that the pursuit of employee happiness holds a direct seat at the decision-making table. With a tenure at Deloitte since 2007 and a seasoned leader in the Tax function, Saraswathi's dedication extends beyond corporate boundaries. As a triumphant cancer survivor, she also channels her passion into transforming fear into hope for cancer patients, conducting extensive outreach programs focused on motivation and inspiration.

In this exclusive interview with Saraswathi, we will explore the organisation's transformative journey towards embracing gender inclusivity, leveraging innovation and technology, and adeptly navigating the intricacies of the hybrid work model.

Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

In today's rapidly evolving workplace, fostering gender inclusivity has become a strategic imperative. Could you share insights into the initiatives and strategies Deloitte has embraced to ensure a more inclusive and diverse workforce?

Fostering inclusion has been at the forefront of our organisational culture and is deeply embedded in our core values. We believe in the power of an integrated, equitable, and cohesive workplace that enables people from all backgrounds to bring their best selves forward and work in an enabling environment. Our interventions span gender, generation, sexual orientation, people with disabilities and more. The overarching philosophy is to go all in and all heart in all that we do in this domain.

Some of our key initiatives from a gender perspective include:

  • The "Self-ID" process, through which professionals can update their employee records with their true gender identity, instead of just the binary ‘male’ and ‘female’. This isn’t just limited to merely giving a third option of ‘other’ but is an open field that can accommodate any identity on the gender spectrum. Further, our Mediclaim coverage extends to expenses related to gender affirmation procedures. The insurance also covers those in same-sex relationships.
  • Our parental care leave extends not only to biological parents but also to parents through adoption and surrogacy.
  • Our periodic "Gender Pay Parity" study ensures zero tolerance for "Gender Pay Disparity" or compensation disparity between men, women, or members of other genders employed at the same career level.
  • We are also constantly boosting a gender inclusivity mindset through regular sensitisation sessions, the development of leadership pipelines for equal career growth opportunities, and gender-balance forums, among others.
  • We have also taken a "Panel Promise," through which we aim to achieve an equitable gender ratio of speakers at thought leadership forums that Deloitte organises or participates in.

We are committed to creating a truly equal workplace both in ratio and in principle and are actively working towards it every day.  

Innovation and technology play pivotal roles in reshaping the workplace. How has your organisation leveraged digital solutions to advance gender equality, particularly in areas such as recruitment, talent development, and creating an inclusive work environment?

Technology holds transformational power to take employee experience to the next level, including inclusion. Our most recent tech interventions are helping us support our women colleagues through their maternity journey, as well as mental health crises. The former guides women through the support available at each stage of maternity. In the run-up to maternity leave, the portal can schedule counselling sessions so that women have someone to talk to during an overwhelming time and schedule sessions with nutritionists.

The latter portal keeps a secure track of requests made for confidential counselling sessions, their frequency, and the progress made – all of which can guide us if there is reason to believe that someone’s adverse mental health is in a crisis stage. On an everyday basis, our internal chatbot, TIA, also keeps track of the mental health at work, asking each professional about their mood on a given day, and collating this information so that an intervention is possible in cases of sudden or sustained dips. Our Women@Work report has, in the past, reported that women bear a disproportionate share of household and caregiving responsibilities, even if they are equal or primary breadwinners in the family. In such cases, there is very little time left for professional development and learning. A recent app that we have rolled out offers byte-sized learning, in a format that’s similar to how you would consume content on social media, helping people with constrained free time prioritise upskilling too.

Mentorship is often cited as a key driver for inclusive leadership. Can you discuss the significance of mentorship programs in your organisation and how they contribute to nurturing a culture of diversity and inclusivity at all levels?

Having strong role models to look up to makes a big difference. While we have coaches for all professionals, there is something special called the Sponsorship Wave that we have been running for the past few years. Under it, women professionals who are on the cusp of leadership positions are assigned a sponsor from amongst the firm’s senior leadership.

While a coach opens your eyes and a mentor can open your mind, a sponsor also opens doors.

They act as advocates for their sponsors and extend their own professional networks and identify opportunities for the women they are sponsoring. This multi-month programme has been pivotal in building our pipeline of women leaders. Since its launch, a high proportion of senior women professionals promoted to partnership positions in Deloitte India, have been beneficiaries of the Sponsorship Wave.

Apart from structured interventions, we also have experience-sharing sessions where inspiring people from all walks of life interact with our professionals. This covers not just women pioneers, but also trailblazers from the LGBTQIA+ community, and people with disabilities. Peer-to-peer storytelling works as well as a top-down approach when it comes to learning from role models. Our “Inspired by You” series shines the spotlight on colleagues from all walks of life who have achieved the extraordinary, sometimes overcoming extreme circumstances. Some of the stories covered thus far include the journey of a national-level wheelchair basketball player, a young professional who embraced his true gender identity, and a much-loved colleague who did not let a modest economic background come in the way of his ambitions.

The hybrid work model has gained prominence, especially post-pandemic. How has Deloitte embraced the hybrid work model to empower the women workforce, addressing challenges and leveraging opportunities for greater flexibility and work-life balance?

Deloitte introduced elements of flexibility before the pandemic itself. For instance, we have long had an extended maternity leave option for women professionals, over and above what’s legally mandated. Upon their return, new mothers could also opt for a flexible schedule. The pandemic and the ways of working that accompanied it, enabled us to go several steps ahead. Hybrid remains our default way of working and each team has tailored its combination of working from home and working from the office, depending on their unique requirements. Within that framework, professionals, both women and men can exercise further flexibility too. 

Flexible work timings are also something that our people have been accustomed to. With a defined set of core working hours, our professionals can flex their start and end times, depending on their personal schedules and the requirements of the work at hand. If life’s milestones necessitate something more, professionals can choose to enter fixed-term arrangements for working a limited number of hours per day, or days per week. There are also sabbaticals of various durations offered.

While they say, ‘well begun is half done’, we want to go the distance. Many organisations have an exhaustive suite of initiatives, but still struggle with adaptability, because somewhere deep down, women professionals feel that if they avail too many of these flexibility options, people’s perception of them will be of someone who can’t be trusted with meaty assignments. Deloitte’s Women@Work survey in previous years has also corroborated this with findings that say that women feel they will be overlooked for big projects or promotions if they avail such benefits. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so as an organisation, we must demonstrate otherwise. Small but logical things like ensuring that when a woman professional goes on maternity break, that her performance evaluation for the year is extrapolated based on the time she was working, and that the extended absence doesn’t adversely affect reviews. We have had several women professionals who celebrated a promotion based on this principle, in the same year of their maternity leave.

In closing, could you share your final thoughts or advice for HR professionals and leaders seeking to enhance workplace inclusivity, drawing from your experiences and the unique initiatives undertaken in your organisation?

A couple of things. Firstly, why do you even want to be inclusive? It cannot be because it’s the “in-thing”. Not even for the public accolades (although those are a good validation of your efforts). It should be because it’s the right thing to do – from a human lens, as well as a business lens. In today’s world, it’s likely that your unique talent is amongst your biggest strategic differentiators. “What you do” may be similar to others in your industry, but your talent dictates “how you do it”. When you lose talent, you lose this advantage. You often lose talent because they don’t feel that they can be themselves at your workplace without negative consequences. Workplace inclusivity is the answer.

Next, you can’t do everything, all at once. Every organisation is at a different stage in its story and what works for Deloitte, may not work for someone else, and vice versa. Focus on a couple of things first that work the best for you and do them complete justice. Be all about the outcomes.

Inclusion is a shared priority and a collective responsibility. It can’t just be the target of one particular team. Unless everyone is invested and has a role to play, it won’t go beyond tokenism.

Don’t rest on your laurels. Every incoming generation comes with its own expectations, and you cannot keep playing catchup. Anticipate what you need to do and be prepared for what’s required tomorrow. For e.g., Gen Zs, who form the bulk of our workforce, want to work for organisations that reflect their own values and have purpose high on their agenda. A high degree of inclusivity is one amongst them. By expanding the scope of our inclusive practices to our immediate ecosystem, we emphasise that we stand for making an impact well beyond our four walls. For instance, our employees get to be active volunteers in our social impact initiatives, many of which revolve around education and skill-building for women and girls.

Last but not least, it’s personal! This may sound counter-intuitive, but inclusion is not something that works when you’re clinical about it. You need to individually feel all of it: the drive to do something, the exhilaration of achieving something, and the heartbreak when something doesn’t work. Because you’re dealing with how people live their lives, staying true to themselves. At Deloitte, we believe in leading with heart.

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Topics: Diversity, Culture, Leadership

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