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Client Spotlight: Best Practices at Cambridge Systematics

In this time of tremendous change, new best practices are rapidly emerging in the workplace. What works now?

At IBIS, we’ve been energized by our clients as they respond to both the pandemic, and the national dialogue on race, by creating cultures that are more inclusive than ever.

Inspired by the work of IBIS client Cambridge Systematics, we reached out to President and CEO Brad Wright, Chief Talent Officer Leanne Gent, and Head of Marketing and Communication Dina Baker to share their experiences.

Cambridge Systematics Logo

First, a little about Cambridge Systematics: it is a 230-person company with more than 45 years’ experience leveraging technology and ingenuity to advance the world of transportation, with a focus on planning and policy, movement of people and goods, software design and development, and, underlying it all, effective partnerships and objective analysis.

The consultation with IBIS has included a DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) Assessment, DEI Strategic Planning, DEI Council formation, Ongoing Consultation, and

upcoming Unconscious Bias Training, and has proven helpful for the organization under the careful eye of IBIS senior consultant Alex Suggs.

Says CEO Brad Wright, “Alex Suggs has been a great partner throughout. She is an excellent communicator who brings insight, experience, and energy to her work; and she has made strong connections with members of our DEI Council. Her collaborative and inclusive approach to the work has already made an impact on our organization.”

Below are the headlines from our conversation:

Communicate with Culture in Mind

With the move to a virtual environment, it has been challenging to replace the interactions people experience in an office environment. These interactions help people to feel connected to what’s going on in the organization and to each other and to understand how their work contributes to the firm overall. This is always critical, but even more so when we are focused on applying the DEI lens to how we bring in voices and raise up opportunities.

We have increased frequency of our communication with and among staff, using everything from weekly CEO updates to virtual drop-in coffee breaks (sometimes with colleagues who have never before met each other), team meetings, and happy hours. We’ve been clear in our formal communications about the firm’s priorities – which include retaining our staff while also protecting the financial health of the firm.

We have intentionally leveraged the equalizing power of the virtual environment. Everyone can be included in dialogue. No one is “in the room” while others are “remote.” What a person knows or whom they can influence no longer can be dependent on whom they physically work with or near. This is incredibly valuable to our DEI work, and we need to ensure that the best of our new modes and models of communication continue for the long-term.

Recognize Individual Needs

We have been conscious, when we make decisions or create policies related to COVID-19, that we must consider that there are individualized needs as an element of being equitable across the organization. This certainly adds challenges, but important ones to grapple with.

For example, we’ve been very aware of how people with underlying health conditions could be impacted by our decisions and policies. This relates not only to office-based decisions but also how we interact with clients, who express a range of expectations about our staff being present for in-person meetings. We don’t want our staff to feel pressured to put themselves or their families at risk, nor will we allow their individual choices about this to impact their standing at the firm.

Uplift DEI Initiatives

We have continued our work to move the firm and our clients forward during this challenging time. It was a conscious decision from the moment we began dealing with COVID-19 that we were not willing to retreat on our DEI work.

In early May, we surveyed our staff to learn how they were feeling about our response to them and our clients during the crisis, their perceptions about returning to offices, and their needs going forward. We learned that 98% of our staff sincerely appreciate how the firm has responded. We believe that, in part, it was because we made decisions and took actions through a DEI lens that we have been so successful in meeting employee needs. That has earned us the trust of our staff; they believe that we have their best interests at heart and that we are doing our best to make equitable decisions.

And this, in turn, prompts staff to be further invested in the DEI work that we are moving forward. In May we introduced organizational changes that support our overall strategic priorities and DEI focus areas, including the appointment of the firm’s first Chief Talent Officer.

In June, the DEI Council completed and presented to staff our DEI strategic plan that serves to underpin our broader company priorities. We believe that the employee commitment to and trust in CS, strengthened through our response during COVID-19, gives us even greater power to move forward with the strategic plan’s priority actions and with changes in our governance structure and accountability.

Most important, we have been open about decisions we’ve made and transparent about how we have made them.

From a client standpoint, we have monitored the changing needs of our clients and are positioned to support them going forward. We are very aware that the work we do with the public sector always has implications for the important linkages among transportation, public health, and economic security. COVID-19 has put an even greater spotlight on the impact of transportation on equity, and we have expressly committed to be a voice on equity to our clients.

Budget Creatively

The financial impact of COVID-19 on the firm is very real. We were on the cusp of rolling out a series of in-person implicit bias training sessions, and we had plans for other training related to our DEI work to develop our staff, position them for growth, and help them connect and develop relationships with one another.  While these remain a priority for us, we have had to rethink timing and methodology for introducing them.

Use the DEI Council as a Resource

Externally, we published a statement on LinkedIn about the work that remains to be done to fight racism and to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. The DEI Council established a TEAMS page to foster internal dialogue about these most recent events, and DEI at CS more broadly, further ensuring that everyone at the firm has a voice.

Says Brad, “These most recent tragedies and acts of racism leave me even more committed to making change in our own organization, while acknowledging that we have a long way to go and that I don’t speak from a position of having the same experiences as many of our employees.

“The heightened visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement has provided an opportunity for our DEI Council to develop its voice and raise its visibility with our staff.  Both the DEI Council and I have separately communicated to staff about violence and racism in America and have voiced our support for change.”

Take Action

What’s most critical is action. Staff need to see, through your actions, that you are committed to making change and moving forward. We believe it’s been key that we’ve continued, even while adjusting to the COVID-19 crisis, to complete our DEI Strategic plan in parallel with taking concrete actions. People recognize that we have much work to do, but we believe they also see our commitment to act. Recent examples of these actions include diversifying our Board of Directors, appointing a Chief Talent Officer, changing our immigration sponsorship practices and policies, and committing to move forward with DEI training.

Be Transparent

From a communication standpoint, what’s most critical from our perspective is that leaders are transparent and genuine in their communication with staff and with the public more broadly. We should avoid issuing statements that imply unearned authority on the issue, or that fail to acknowledge the work their own organizations need to do. Staff need to understand that we care about them, that they have a forum for their voice to be heard, and that they are supported. Throughout the COVID-19 situation, we have sought input from our staff and communicated openly with them. This communication must become part of the way that we work every day, not just in times of crisis.


Well said, Cambridge Systematics team: we’re all learning and adapting in the moment, and new levels of understanding are ours to keep every day. Creating new ways of working opens the door to a wide range of possibilities on inclusion. We’d love to hear your approach! If you’d like your organization’s best practices to be highlighted, please reach out and contact us, and let us know how you’re doing.