Berkeley Lab

Five Years of IDEA Progress: An Interview with Director Witherell and Aditi Chakravarty

The stewardship of people at Berkeley Lab is critical to the Lab’s future. It enables the Lab to better attract, develop, and retain talented, dedicated professionals and continue our efforts towards building a more welcoming and supportive environment. Employees and candidates expect principles-based work cultures, opportunities for growth, and supportive people programs. Offering the resources and opportunities employees need to carve out rewarding careers at the Lab will encourage our people to grow and thrive and enable the Lab to remain an employer of choice.

Lady Idos, who has been on special assignment with the Department of Energy, is returning to the Lab as Chief Diversity Officer in August. Aditi Chakravarty, who has led the IDEA office for the past two years during Lady’s absence, will transition to the role of Chief Culture Officer, heading a new Learning & Culture Office, an evolution of the Lab’s L&OD Office. This office will report to the Director and ensure that the Lab’s stewardship values and associated behaviors are embedded into our leadership and team cultures.

Recently, Aditi sat down with Lab Director Mike Witherell to discuss the progress that has been made around diversity, inclusion, and equity since the Lab established the IDEA Office in 2018, as well as the gaps and opportunities that remain ahead.

Q: Director Witherell, what are your thoughts about the state of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accountability at the Lab?

A: Michael Witherell: Well, we’ve made good progress in communicating with the laboratory over the last five years. I think we’ve done a good job to where now everybody at the laboratory knows what we mean, and the areas and divisions are taking it on and making it part of their organization. At the same time, we still have a long way to go. It’s a continuing process that we need to keep moving forward.

Q: Has the Lab progressed in IDEA since its introduction in 2018? What are some of the milestones from the past three years that you can share?

A: Aditi Chakravarty: So many people have put their time, their energy, and their effort into IDEA over the past five years. There are a lot of milestones, but we can highlight a few notable ones, especially at the Lab-wide level. The first is that our employee resource groups have grown substantially in terms of membership. We started with 466 members in 2019 and it’s grown by 260% over three years to 1,247 people being members and participants in some way across nine ERGs today. We had seven ERGs three years ago.

In my professional experience, I haven’t necessarily seen that kind of growth everywhere. So it’s really heartening to see that rise in adoption so quickly. We also have representatives of the IDEA Chairs Council from across the divisions and areas, which has tripled in size. There are other milestones that maybe we haven’t publicized as much. Talent Outreach in HR has been doing strategic outreach to specific communities like the veterans and disabled communities and has seen gradual representation increases from those targeted areas, moving us in the right direction of closing gaps with available talent in the labor market. We, in partnership with Career Pathways, have launched Mentoring@LBNL which is a huge, incredible cross-divisional effort.

In 2021, the head of our IDEA Office, Lady Idos, was assigned to the DOE to assist with their diversity and inclusion efforts. That is a recognition of the impact of the Lab programs, which has led the Lab to have a larger impact on the complex and the DOE.

Mike: For the principles of IDEA to be institutionalized and last a long time here, and really change the culture, we need to move to the point where IDEA is part of all divisions, workgroups, and departments. And the thing that I’ve seen really happen over the last three years is basically every division, every part of the laboratory has some people who have really taken on this concept to make IDEA apply in their workplace and to their people. I hear from people about how this is going and how they think it’s good. And I also hear how they feel. I’ve had people come to me and say they feel welcomed in this environment. Building a welcoming environment helps everybody at the laboratory. That atmosphere is not for only some in the community. We all benefit from a welcoming environment.

Mentorship is also important. I heard from many at the Lab that we needed that. And we now have much broader formal mentorship programs across the laboratory, which helps everybody at the laboratory.

Q: Mike, the Director’s Awards had two new categories added last year, IDEA and stewardship. Why did you think those were important to add?

A: Mike:  The Director’s Award program has been a great thing at the laboratory for a long time. It’s one of the best days of the year. You learn about what great things are being done in our community. But we realized that it needed to be updated to integrate our IDEA principles. If we think these things are important, we should include them in our award structure. You could go to past years and find people who actually would have fit into these categories. But now giving it that name shows that we’re really operating and rewarding people for IDEA and stewardship.

Q: What are the new DOE requirements for researchers around diversity and inclusion?

A: Mike: We’ve been thinking about what IDEA means in the research environment at the Lab, but we actually got some help from DOE on this, and they recently issued their PIER Program. It asks how the research project and the people working on it will advance the principles of inclusion, diversity, and equity across our laboratory and the DOE complex. From my experience at Santa Barbara, I know this has been a requirement for NSF proposals for years but DOE had not formally had that as part of their proposal. We had already developed some tools to help people think about how they can advance inclusion, diversity, and equity through their research projects, and how to build that into their proposals.

Aditi:  And not just proposals, but even more importantly, in their execution of the work. As we learn more about what is successful, not only, as Mike says in the proposal stage, but even on the ground, or for the teams, for the researchers, the more we can refine what people do in a research environment. So it’s really exciting. And we are launching the IDEA in Research Working Group which has representation from across the Lab to refine the resources that we’re providing.

Q: How is the Lab expressing diversity and inclusion in recruitment?

A: Mike: Inclusion, diversity, and equity need to start with inclusion. Because if the people at the Lab from underrepresented communities do not feel welcome here, then we’re not going to be successful at bringing more people in, and we’re not going to keep the people we have. But I think we’ve made some progress on that. We still have work to do on diversifying our hiring. We’ve brought equity advisors into the hiring process, but we need to increase the outreach to those communities in our hiring process.  I want to give some credit to the ERGs for helping us to do this; for giving us the feedback that we need about how we need to do better at reaching their communities.

Q: How do we know that IDEA has become part of the Lab culture?

A: Aditi: I tend to look at this in terms of the explicit and implicit markers. Mike, we talked about explicit markers, such as our cultural artifacts, and saw how much they’ve changed over the years in terms of the integration of IDEA. If we were to look at our websites from 2018 or 2019 versus today, you’ll see IDEA concepts are integrated into how people are talking about not only their teams and their people but also their research. We integrated IDEA into our PMP templates. If you attend a meeting, you’ll see now One Minute for IDEA very regularly as part of our rituals and practices at the Lab. So I think those are some of the ways we see it explicitly.

Mike: I see exactly these things. I see how teams bring this into their all-hands and town hall meetings. I can sort of measure it that way, although it’s not rigorously quantitative, it’s really meaningful, practically significant.

Aditi: So it’s part of our Lab culture. And then our culture influences the groups that we participate in such as large-scale collaborations. They’re taking IDEA into action. They’re using our resources and including IDEA when they talk about their research program to advisory groups and to peer reviews.

Mike: They’re including that not because it’s required, but because that’s part of their program and how they talk about it. And so I see that happening at the Lab-wide level from our Lab Advisory Board about how they’re hearing this, too.

Aditi: There’s also the implicit measures of people’s attitudes and mindsets. We’re trying to shift those things over time in terms of making all of us more equipped to build inclusive work environments. And I think even there, with translating our talk into our actions, we’ve seen change. One way we measure it is through the UC engagement survey and soon we’ll have a lab-wide culture survey. That’s one small way that we understand how people feel IDEA is being integrated into the organization and our values system. We have also slowly built trust in the organization, enough for employees to feel empowered to give us and each other feedback to make all of us better. For instance, I think we now receive more direct feedback from our employees from underrepresented and historically excluded groups than we may have before. It shows that the conversation has moved to a new point.

Q: Aditi, you mentioned the Lab’s progress report. Why was it needed, and why now?

Aditi: Our goal was to highlight our progress while acknowledging where we have gaps and opportunities. The IDEA Office was established five years ago and it’s a good time to conduct a retrospective, and establish some baselines for where we are and where we’ve been, and then from there set our goals for three years from now and then think about the road ahead past that.

We also wanted to take a moment, given all of the work that’s been done over the last five years, to honor and celebrate employees, their passion, effort, and dedication, and their incredible work as IDEA champions.

The third piece is to share the insights generated from many feedback channels. Some are our strengths and some are clear opportunities for change and growth over time. We have feedback from our Covid pulse surveys, staff engagement survey, and demographic data about our workforce from 2016 to the present. We have a lot of qualitative channels of feedback. So all that gives us clear insight and areas where we know we can improve.

Mike: And the other thing that’s good about the progress report is that everybody sort of knows what’s going on in their own area, but people generally don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the laboratory, and so the progress report puts some of these efforts into the spotlight. I think it’s important for people to hear from other parts of the laboratory about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it partly to just show how broad it is.

Q: Why do you think it’s important that the Lab continues to focus on IDEA?

Mike: There are two parts to this. First, it’s important because it’s the right thing to do, because we take care of our people, and that’s very important to us. It’s also important because it is important for the success of the laboratory’s research. When the Lab Advisory Board asked me what are the most important risks that I see as a lab director, the number one, I said, is retaining our key people at the laboratory. It is my most important risk in this new environment and it’s true for most leaders in society right now. People feel like this is the right place, that they want to work here. You know most of what we’re doing for IDEA is the right thing to do.

Q: How do other Lab leaders play a role in supporting IDEA at the Lab?

Mike: At this point, it’s happening at area and division meetings. We have distributed leadership within the laboratory. Most people look to their division directors and ALDs as their leaders in their area. These leaders articulate the principles of IDEA in their own language and in a way that their people are used to hearing information. That is different from my language, and that’s an important part of how this works.

Aditi: Mentoring@LBNL is one example of how the effort is Lab-wide and localized. It’s an effort that we can all do together. Each division adds its own spin and modifies the concept to serve the needs of its population. We’ve been looking for these best practices across the Lab, which has led us to generate case studies from suggestions from the IDEA Chairs Council. They’ve been sharing some of the practices they’ve implemented that they feel are impactful. And then in conversation with them, the IDEA Office has selected a few that are interesting, novel, or replicable in other parts of the Lab. We are going to start sharing these case studies. One upcoming one is how the Office of the Chief Financial Officer has focused on psychological safety or creating team cultures where people feel comfortable taking interpersonal risks and sharing mistakes. The Molecular Foundry has been working on work-life balance. And Biosciences have been working on what they called the fresh faces program which is creating a network for career support and belonging for early career scientists.

Mike: I think that is a transition for IDEA. So far, it’s been a conversation between the Directorate, the IDEA program, and the rest of the laboratory. Now more of the conversation has to be from the different parts of the laboratory with each other about what can they can learn and what it means. I think that’s the new phase that we’re moving into.

Q: What’s been the impact of IDEA at other labs, and what kind of feedback have you received from your peers?

Mike: We get our feedback from the DOE’s Office of Science on the annual lab plan, and they’re telling us that we have taken a leadership role in the area of diversity and inclusion. But one has to be careful because this is not an area in which to spend much time patting oneself on the back. But we intended specifically to take a leading role, and I think we have.

Q: Aditi, what can we look forward to from the IDEA Office for the rest of the year?

Aditi: The programs that we have in place that we’ve spotlighted and showcased in our progress report will continue. We’re looking to rigorously assess what’s working for the remainder of 2023, and onward. In terms of new things, one thing we will be launching as an organization is a Lab-wide culture survey, which a lot of people have been asking for. It will give us the ability to play back what employees are feeling, not just at the lab-wide level, but also within different parts of the Lab. That will make it possible for us to actually tailor interventions to specific needs and establish feedback loops in a more robust way. Another thing is we’re going to be piloting some belonging interventions. And the last big new thing is this IDEA-in-Research Working Group that will be working on integrating IDEA more closely into the research side of the house. These will include conversations around equity, and what it means to be equity-centered in the work.

Q: Let’s end on a personal note. Mike and Aditi, what drives you to focus on IDEA at the Lab?

Aditi: Work is very personal to me. I have a global far-flung family with a lot of differences embedded within the family. I identify as a daughter of immigrants. That has defined my life in a huge way. So I’ve just always been really preoccupied personally with differences. How do we bridge them? Think of all the amazing things we gain from bridging them, even when there’s friction that may also emerge. I’m a huge believer in pluralism.

And then, as an organizational psychologist, I’m really interested in human development. And that’s what animates me in my work. I believe workplaces can be places of human flourishing, particularly when it’s mission-driven and impactful work which is what we do at Berkeley Lab. It’s amazing to be at a place where we’re in a position to build the future of the world quite literally. And the people who are here today and who choose to come here are going to be a part of that, and we want that population to be as representative of America, of the world as possible.

Mike: I’ve been at some level, working on this as a leader of organizations for some 20 to 25 years. We’ve talked about improving inclusion, diversity, and equity and I’m not seeing enough impact from talking. So I came into this job, saying, you know it’s not enough to have goodwill. It’s not enough to say the right thing. Somehow we have to figure out some ways of doing this better than we’ve been doing. As a lab director for the second time, I realized that influence on culture is one thing you can do as a laboratory director. I thought we would like to run the experiment of finding new ways of doing this and seeing if we could be a leader in this.

I looked around and said what organizations have really shown clear success in this, and I had trouble finding them to be honest. I realize that we need to be not only committed but also innovative about how we approach this. We’re people who are used to innovation. We need to apply our innovative spirit to inclusion, diversity, and equity. That’s the way we will make a difference.