Case Study

Going ‘All In’ on Diversity & Inclusion

Nisha Marwaha, Virgin Media O2’s Director, People Relations and DE&I, speaks about the firm’s five-year plan to improve workplace diversity and, in turn, the lives of their employees and the communities they serve...

Journalist: Liam Soutar

When Virgin Media and O2 announced they would be merging in a £31billion mega deal last summer (2021), the newly united firm's Chief Executive, Lutz Schüler, promised to "connect more people to the things they love (and) support communities across the country." There was "no limit to our ambition", Schüler vowed, also setting out plans for "investment and innovation in cutting-edge infrastructure and future technology" to keep Virgin Media O2's customers satisfied with their 47million connections to superfast broadband, mobile phone networks and 5G coverage.

In the background, HR leaders were working on their own plans for greater connectivity and community support – only this time, within the company. Nisha Marwaha, Virgin Media O2's Director, People Relations and DE&I, knew diversity and inclusion (D&I) was going to play a huge role in building the culture within the new organisation, going forward. But it was not going to be an easy task.

Employee views shaped a new D&I strategy

Firstly, was the challenge of just how difficult it can be to implement an all-encompassing Diversity and Inclusion strategy (D&I) – having to consider a number of factors from race, religion and gender, to age and disability and cognitive function. Research has found that far too many companies do not achieve this enough. According to 2021 data from Workday, almost a third of UK businesses do not have a strategic approach to inclusion and diversity. The survey of more than 2,000 HR professionals and business leaders found that 31% of UK respondents said their organisation did not take a strategic approach to inclusion and diversity, and had not taken any steps towards implementing one.

Then there was the issue of assessing the two separate D&I strategies of both sides of the firm before its merger, picking apart what worked well and what could be improved. Speaking exclusively to myGrapevine magazine, Marwaha explained:

Nisha Marwaha
Nisha Marwaha
Director, People Relations and DE&I
Virgin Media O2
"We knew both companies will have made their own progress in D&I, so we were really mindful about that and thinking how to use those strong foundations that each side had achieved to bring it together and make it meaningful for our new company going forward", said Marwaha.

She set out by bringing together the company's six separate diversity networks (carried over from both Virgin Media and O2) to discuss what they wanted for the future of Virgin Media O2's workplace. There is We Care – the company's network of carers, Proudly – the firm's LGBT+ network, disabilities network Ultraviolet, their neurodiversity group Extra Ordinary, Enrich for underrepresented ethnic minorities and Gender Equality.

A data-driven approach

A data-driven approach

Marwaha and her team used these network consultations to build Virgin Media O2's DE&I strategy, combining it with a data-driven approach which took in everything from attrition levels to hiring percentages, and creating some percentage ambitions for representation that would underpin the D&I strategy going forward. Marwaha explains: "(D&I) is hugely important to us. It's backed by our executives. We have a DE&I team which has been given real backing and empowerment to move our strategy forward, which is fantastic."

The data on D&I's impact on employee attrition, would be of particular importance to business leaders. Amid the current 'war for talent', it's worth noting 2021 Glassdoor data which found that 67% of jobseekers consider workplace diversity an important factor when considering employment opportunities. The same survey found that 50% of workers want their employer to be doing more around diversity. So, the evidence suggests that Virgin Media O2's DE&I strategy, if done right, could be a huge benefit in the firm's fight to retain and recruit talent. And as Marwaha said: "When we looked at our data set and where we are and where we want to be, it was really important for us that we are representative of the communities that we serve. Our company purpose is to reimagine connectivity and upgrade the UK. So, its intrinsic for us if we want to outperform in the market, to be representative."

Diversity's impact on business performance

Marwaha explained that, at Virgin Media O2, there's a compelling business case for diverse representation. She stated: "I think there's a higher likelihood of outperformance (against the competition) with the more diversity you have and given that we do want to be representative of the communities we serve, we need to reflect that in our organisation, to be able to make products and services that are compelling for those communities. And that also give us that edge when it comes to innovation, so we absolutely buy into the real business drivers for diversity and inclusion, as well as the fact that clearly, we're driven by doing the right thing and making societal change. So, it goes hand in hand for us."

Virgin Media O2's commitment to diversity is one that other firms should be encouraged to follow, for their own benefit as well as their employees' – research from the Harvard Business Review in 2018 found that companies with ‘higher-than-average' diversity had, on average, 19% higher revenue.

Diversity's impact on business performance
Diversity's impact on business performance

In order to generate the best positive impact on the business, Virgin Media O2 worked hard behind the scenes for months, using feedback from the company's diversity networks, to develop a five-year project of bold ambitions to become a more inclusive and equitable company. In April 2022, the initiative called 'All In' was announced to the public, with progressive commitments to achieve gender parity and to increase employees from minoritised ethnic groups by 2027. As part of its 'All In' strategy, the company aims to remove bias and systemic barriers and will introduce new equitable policies so employees can be their whole selves at work. Virgin Media O2's first step was a bold one – a commitment to fund gender transition treatment for transgender and non-binary employees.

Going 'All In'

The reaction from Virgin Media O2's workforce was "overwhelmingly positive", according to Marwaha, and a testament to why these strategies are needed – more so than some might imagine. In fact, a 2021 YouGov survey, conducted on behalf of Totaljobs, questioned more than 400 UK workers who identify as trans, with 65% saying they have had to hide their trans status at work, compared to 52% who answered the same survey in 2016.

Marwaha commented: "I think it's a fantastic commitment for the company to make and it's about making our employees feel that they belong here, and that we support them. We're all very proud of that. With 'All In', it's about what we're doing inside our company and how we support our employees, but it's also about how we can support marginalised communities across the UK to use our brand, our purpose, to make sure we're stepping up for communities. How can we do good for society, in and out of the organisation? The response underpins the impact it has when you make people feel they can come to work and belong.

"Our strategy is about addressing societal issues as well and use our brand and purpose to do things that are good, and when things are tough, how can we address these barriers."

Also at the heart of Virgin Media O2's 'All In' strategy are four ambitions to be achieved by 2027, including:

Equal representation of women and men in the company's wider leadership team

To have driven forward progress for gender parity, including all gender identities and expressions across the organisation

15% of Virgin Media O2's wider leadership team will be from minoritised ethnic groups

25% of Virgin Media O2's wider organisation will be from minoritised ethnic groups

Diversity's impact on business performance

Making bold moves, when it matters

The ambitions which are aimed at the company's wider leadership level – around 1,000 employees – have been set to drive accountability and to enact change at the very top of the organisation. In addition, the company will set goals for teams across the business which will be measured and reviewed regularly to ensure it stays on track to meet its 2027 commitments. Virgin Media O2 will also encourage its employees to share, confidentially, more diversity information so it can understand and then tackle potential barriers in its hiring, promotion, and retention practices, to ensure it drives forward meaningful change.

"I really love the name because the idea is that we're going 'all in', but also it takes all of us to make this change, and that we're here for everybody," said Marwaha, adding:

"We're just really proud that the business is behind all of these commitments, is shouting about them and really up for making bold moves when we can, and when it matters for our employees."
the lens
of equity

A key pillar in Virgin Media O2's strategy, Marwaha explained, is thinking about equity in the decision-making processes. "Our commitment is to take all of our employee policies and look at them through an equity lens, and where we can, try to remove any systemic barriers for all of our groups and our underrepresented staff," she said.

"This is about creating a workplace where people enjoy working here and can thrive"

"That's really what this is about – people just coming to work and feeling they can be themselves, and being supported by their employer. That's what I hope, ultimately, will be the outcome from all of these plans and strategies."

It seems that in the months since the merger, Virgin Media O2 has been on quite a journey, not only setting out to fulfil grand ambitions of shaking up the industry, but shaking up the DE&I scene too. In order to do so, they must be putting people at the heart of both plans, and they appear to be doing just that. As Marwaha concluded, Virgin Media O2's 'All In' strategy is "all about people, and about people's lives." Their strategy is more than a set of documents, it's about enacting societal change, and creating fundamental positive change.

What's clear from the company‘s commitment to a five-year-plan is that they are not treating these diversity and inclusion issues as a tick box exercise. They're determined to make a genuine difference to the lives of their people and, ultimately, if they're happy at work, they go out into the world and spread that in their communities and their families.

About Virgin Media O2

Lutz Schüler
Staff headcount:
Around 17,500 people
Retail stores:
Over 400
Hammersmith, West London

Virgin Media O2 launched on June 1, 2021, combining the UK's largest and most reliable mobile network with a broadband network offering the fastest widely-available broadband speeds.

Virgin Media O2 has 47 million UK connections across broadband, mobile, TV and home phone.

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