The Future of Workplace Learning
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Countless companies today are promoting and facilitating lifelong learning opportunities for their employees and contributors. Amid a broader social reckoning about race and equity, inclusion’s critical role in creating a learning environment is under a brighter spotlight. Wayfair, an e-commerce company specializing in home goods, has actively embraced inclusion initiatives — even at a work-from-home distance.
With a background in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across industries, including higher education, banking, and health care, KeyAnna Schmiedl joined Wayfair in 2019, becoming the company’s global head of culture and inclusion in 2020. Schmiedl considers DEI to be inherently interconnected with organizational development, and this perspective informs her systemic and strategic approach to effecting positive change.
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Deborah Milstein, associate editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, spoke with Schmiedl about her work on culture and inclusion. What follows is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.
MIT Sloan Management Review: Where do culture and inclusion fit in your organization, and where do you think they should fit?
KeyAnna Schmiedl: People are making the connection that diversity, equity, and inclusion are not a set of initiatives that operate in a silo. It only works when you’re talking about informing the policies, practices, and procedures of what happens at work every day — and, depending on your business, how you interact with your customers, how you represent your stakeholders and suppliers, and so on.
For me, it naturally makes sense that DEI is foundational to everything that happens at work, and it’s how companies build a culture of inclusion. Being able to marry culture and DEI more tightly is how colleagues understand why I show up in learning and development [L&D] or talent acquisition meetings — that it makes sense for me or my team to be there.
In a way, we operate more like consultants, as opposed to some of the traditional thinking around HR: “Come in, do this for us, execute this training, and that will solve our problems.” In DEI and L&D, we’re executing initiatives, yes, but we’re also acting as consultants for the business to assume accountability for delivering shared outcomes.
Ultimately, when leading DEI or L&D initiatives — like any other business initiative — somebody needs to be accountable for it. Was it rolled out correctly, with the right information and the right level of engagement? The DEI team is not exclusively responsible for hiring and representation. Everybody who is part of the business, who’s part of hiring decisions, is accountable for those outcomes.
People are making the connection that diversity, equity, and inclusion are not a set of initiatives that operate in a silo.
What’s the relationship between culture and inclusion and organizational learning? Should they be integrated?
Schmiedl: I’d love to see more partnership and integration between L&D and inclusion. There are plenty of opportunities where having the expertise of both groups can bring better solutions. For instance, my team recently collaborated with our L&D partners on the terminology used in performance reviews. By analyzing this data, we noticed that the biggest opportunity area for most women was to improve their confidence.
We have a competency in our performance model that maps to communication and persuasion, so you would expect low scores there for employees regarded as lower in confidence. But the scores didn’t match that pattern, which helped us understand that “confidence” was being used more as a catchall term without an official definition. But in order to give somebody direct feedback that they can act on, they have to understand what, specifically, they’re being asked to improve.
Our L&D team offered to polish up existing training with some data around improving confidence, with examples of things people could try out: “Tell yourself that in the next meeting, you’re going to speak up at least three times.” But for women of color, often the knock is that we’re coming off as overconfident, so “Speak up more” would be incongruous guidance for some people. L&D took that lens of inclusion to broaden the discussion around what advice to suggest, with consideration given to how folks identify — be it race/ethnic considerations or introversion/extroversion.
Additionally, time was spent orienting participants to a shared responsibility in building confidence, pointing to a model in which the individuals, their team, and their manager all contribute to their success and moving away from the idea that confidence is solely the responsibility of the individual. This was done with an understanding that it does not work anymore to create one single training that we say is for everyone, without considering if it truly is the training for everyone. Generic advice may not work in certain scenarios, depending on your identity or dimensions of diversity.
For me, the connection between learning and DEI just feels seamless — which is the way it should work, not at cross-purposes or in an adversarial way. Since the racial reckoning that was sparked in the U.S. in 2020, people are gaining awareness that experiences aren’t the same across the board. And now they’re wondering, “What does that change actually look like in L&D or HR management or operations?” And that’s where DEI can easily plug in and help.
How has L&D contributed to broader culture and inclusion efforts?
Schmiedl: We recently shifted to using a set of “people principles” that are meant to describe how we operate at our best and that inform our competency model. Previously, we had deferred to a set of core values, which we found were really a mix of behaviors, beliefs, and how-tos that were too murky to drive behaviors.
L&D has been a huge part of managing this change process and helping to embed this new language into their trainings. Our teams have been able to communicate really well in parsing the nuances of what specific terms mean, and L&D has been a really trusted partner, concerned about maintaining the integrity of what we mean by each specific term and principle.
We’ve also codeveloped “culture of inclusion” trainings with L&D. They had the subject-matter expertise to pinpoint the highly engaging points in the instructor-led, in-person training and re-create those experiences in a different e-learning format.
How do you see the perception of DEI changing?
Schmiedl: Responsibility maps to the C-suite, typically, so in order for cultural initiatives — values, diversity, inclusion, belonging, etc. — to be effective, they have to sit at a C-suite level. My hope is that we see more CEOs recognizing the impact of these topics and making them C-level concerns. Without strong executive support, professionals in DEI have to do a lot more influencing up.
Many DEI practitioners will tell you that they are doing culture work, but they don’t necessarily get that mandate or have “culture” as part of their title. You see it more now, whether the chief people officer is also the chief inclusion officer, or in roles like mine. We came up with the “culture and inclusion” title when I took over the culture and values team. It truly depends on who’s leading HR and how much they buy into this idea of DEI being woven into the fabric of everything.
What kind of mistakes have you seen in DEI across industries, and what have you seen work well?
Schmiedl: The common thread in the mistakes that I’ve seen is defensiveness and assuming that there is one “right” way. To get up and want to do this work every day, you first need humor, but also humility.
Part of approaching learning with humility is sharing where your own personal learning has happened. I encourage that of leaders all the time — and I do it myself. I reference the fact that I’m in an interracial marriage, and that after 17 years, my husband and I are having some conversations that 10 years ago we weren’t able to have effectively.
At Wayfair, we started a series called Change Starts at Home, which featured folks sharing their own stories — about the work environment, interpersonal interactions, or experiences in broader society. We provided speakers a space to share their stories, unfiltered and also unquestioned. What’s critical is to create an environment that is psychologically safe. To do that, you allow people to listen, but you also let them know when you’re expecting some level of participation and what the modes of participation can look like. We created a format where people understood that you don’t question someone’s experience — instead you question what we can do to ensure that that negative experience doesn’t happen again.
How do leaders foster a culture that embraces people’s curiosity and acceptance that meets them where they are in the learning process?
Schmiedl: People sometimes get mired in the disagreements around what they’re seeing. It can help to ask big picture questions to move forward: “Do we want to do something about this, and if so, what could we start to do?” Right there, people opt in: “I’ve got energy around this. I have some thoughts. I want to engage.” Even if there are some people who want to sit back and figure out what the lessons are to be learned, you’re able to engage those who are ready to go right now and leverage some of the productivity that comes out of those moments.
How have you had to adapt employee-facing programs during the pandemic? And what changes might you keep in place once people return to offices?
Schmiedl: We still have people in the field and our warehouses who are physically at work every day. But for our corporate employees, who’ve been working from home for about a year now, we realized the benefit of being in a personalized space in community. Helping to create that psychological safety makes people feel more comfortable engaging.
As a company, we’ve grown so quickly that we never had an onsite space in which we could fit all of our people, let alone the almost 4,000 people who tuned in to our first Change Starts at Home session. We quickly understood how this virtual environment allows us to include more people, no matter what time zones they’re in.
The virtual setting made us more thoughtful and deliberate around communication. Even though we were all in an office together previously, teams were siloed. Being able to bring different groups together and visually see everybody on the screen really shifts your thinking. With the benefit of proximity, it’s easy to overlook making some information explicit.
There are people I probably never would have seen or interacted with if we hadn’t pivoted to a virtual environment. In the same way that we thought that connection would be lost, we’re actually realizing how we can provide deeper and wider connections in this virtual environment — that we can do more with in culture and inclusion.