Cisco Systems

Visionary firm is making all the right moves

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 November, 2009, 12:00am

Cisco's Hong Kong and Macau operations may not be the only business to use web-based videoconferencing technology, but it can, according to general manager Barbara Chiu, claim one world first.

'We must be the only company to have used our Webex technology to teach tai chi. More than 100 staff and partners participated.'

That initiative, and 'work-life balance' days in which staff are actively encouraged to stay at home and 'telecommute', is typical of Cisco's status as a leader in workplace culture and practices.

The communication technologies that enable these initiatives are Cisco's own, and the in-house policy of using them wherever possible inside their worldwide organisation - a practice known internally as 'Cisco on Cisco' - reinforces the notion that the company's products and principles are intertwined.

'Cisco is a visionary company,' Chiu said. 'We focus on diversity in the workforce to do business more effectively and efficiently. The technology enables us to be flexible. It's an encouragement to focus on a healthy balance between work and personal life.'

Women are particular beneficiaries of this philosophy, with the company's Women's Action Networks providing women employees with a platform for information exchange and support worldwide, and the latest technology and communication tools to help them. The networks can easily talk to each other (news of the Women of Influence award was immediately shared worldwide, to great acclaim), and virtual meetings and events are regular occurrences.

In a further initiative to encourage women to join the company, all new women employees are offered automatic membership of the Women's Action Networks and allocated an executive mentor to provide support and help with learning the Cisco business and culture. The Hong Kong Women's Action Network has about 100 members, reflecting about 30 per cent of the local workforce and typical of Cisco employment ratios worldwide.

It would be easy to imagine that this positive approach to making the workplace a more attractive and flexible environment for women could alienate the men, with the risk of disenchantment at perceived 'positive discrimination'. Yet Cisco has thought of that too.

'Men have an open invitation to attend the Women's Action Network activities,' Chiu said. 'And some took part in the tai chi, too. Male executives can also enrol as mentors to the new women joiners. It's all part of an overall policy of inclusion to bring male and female employees together in an informal environment. The male employees have been extremely supportive of the policy and I haven't seen any resistance.'

Visiting senior executives will frequently make time in their schedules to talk to the local Women's Action Groups, particularly the many women senior executives in the company's United States headquarters, who, according to Chiu, always make time to give support and advice on how to make the most of the opportunities that the company offers for women.

Clearly, the Cisco philosophy of work has also impressed outsiders. The company was rated No 6 last year by Fortune magazine in its list of the best companies to work for and, in the same year, was awarded the 'Caring Company' classification in Hong Kong.

The company shares its experience with local universities, demonstrating to tomorrow's executives that it can be possible to create a workplace environment where women have equal opportunities.

Chiu is comfortable with the company's role as evangeliser. 'We talk to students, especially female students, to let them see that in industries such as IT networking there are working environments that encourage a lot of women to join and to realise their full potential and become very successful,' she said.

Overall, she believes, the response from the students and from people she talks to in other companies is that they are impressed by the high level of empowerment in Cisco's corporate culture.

'That binds us together,' she said. 'But thanks to the technology we don't have to be physically together for that to happen. The empowerment builds trust, not just from employees towards the company, but between employees too as they communicate more with each other, and more openly too.'

The next steps for Cisco are likely to be to leverage its own collaboration technology further, including customers and partners in the process to achieve end-to-end enterprise collaboration.

As one small indicator, selected business partners have been invited to take part, as a pilot exercise, in some of the Hong Kong company's remote working, or telecommuting exercises. The next time, Chiu insisted, she would include customers, too, in part spurred on by the Women of Influence award.

'This is a very inspiring award for us. It's a recognition and validation for us of everything we're trying to do, and it can only encourage us to do more.'

Judge's Comments

The winner of this year's Best Company for Women award uses innovation and technology to create a work environment that supports work-life balance, making it possible for women to progress and attain senior positions. This is demonstrated by the number of women in senior frontline roles, and the growing percentage of women in executive and managerial positions. Technology employed, such as Unified Video Advantage, Webex and TelePresence, enables employees to participate in virtual meetings, conference calls or make presentations from their home, cutting down on travelling time carbon emissions. The company has a serious focus on inclusion and diversity and makes it part of executive performance measurement based on goals and metrics.

Its Women's Action Network (WAN) is a successful initiative designed to hire and develop women. There are eight WANs in Asia-Pacific. Each has a lead, a working committee and an executive sponsor. Other women-friendly policies of the company include having a mother's room available for nursing mothers and additional flexibility for work hours.

Sheila Chuang, Chair of the Judges 2009