Tara is a Human Resource professional with over 15 years’ experience, and currently is the Head of People & Culture at DesignInc Sydney. She is the champion for DesignInc’s staff…
Getting to Know Tara Keast
Tara Keast, Head of People and Culture at our Sydney studio, is passionate about equity, diversity and inclusion. She has been instrumental to the creation of our progressive studio culture, and was the recipient of the 2022 national AHRI ‘Diversity and Inclusion Champion’ award. We met up with Tara to talk about the deep roots of her passion, her professional journey to date, and life outside work.
Good morning Tara, thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. Tell me about how you came to be in the human resources space.
At high school I was very social, I was the emotional problem solver among our friendship group—people came to me if they needed support, or advice. As you can imagine, at an all-girls high school, there were a lot of emotions! After school, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do so I enrolled in a Bachelor of Business at the UTS Lindfield campus, as it was quite close to home. Coincidently, DesignInc recently designed the adaptive reuse of this campus as a secondary school—Lindfield Learning Village—so it’s come full circle!
What a coincidence!
I studied two majors—Marketing and Human Resources (HR)—and quite quickly worked out that marketing wasn’t for me, but I loved the HR and management subjects. I was invited to do honours. As I was working part time at Payless Shoes at the time, I decided to investigate the high staff turnover in the retail industry for my thesis. It was so interesting!
That does sound interesting. Was that your first job?
I had worked part time for a labour hire company, interviewing tradies and sorting out their white cards etc, but yes, apart from that Payless Shoes was my first big job. It was a great job, I was HR Coordinator, and I had a fantastic female HR Manager who taught me a lot.
After I graduated, I worked for ENSR, an environmental science company. Shortly after starting there, they were taken over by AECOM, a huge US-owned multi-national company. It was a big learning curve. In the seven years I was there I went from an HR Coordinator to a Senior Business Partner. At one point we had over 1000 people in the Sydney office!
Working for such a big organisation had pros and cons. There were some opportunities—for example I introduced a new Health and Wellbeing programme that was rolled out nationally, it was very satisfying to work on something with such a large impact. The business model at AECOM is merger and acquisitions, so I learned a lot about change management, building organisational culture, and integrating smaller businesses into the larger business.
In other ways it was quite restrictive as we had to work within the global systems, and I felt limited with what I could do in my role. When I returned to work after having my first baby, there was not much flexibility. I felt my only option was to come back full time to be able to give my internal stakeholders the attention they needed, which I didn’t really want to do, so that’s when I started looking for something more flexible.
And is that when you started at DesignInc?
Yes, I started at DesignInc in 2015. At that stage the Sydney studio had around 40 people, and my brief was to ‘fix the culture’. There had been no-one in the HR role for six months, so I basically started from scratch with no hand over. It was both exciting and daunting. On one hand, such a great opportunity to build the culture from the ground up—I could call the shots and propose initiatives to the Directors, who were generally very supportive of whatever I wanted to do. And on the other hand, it was terrifying! It took me about a year to find my feet.
To get a feel for the company and what people wanted, I held regular informal ‘all staff get-together’ chats. There was no agenda, just a gathering, a chat, a brainstorm. I asked people to tell me what they thought was missing in the company, how we could improve things, and through our discussions an idea of ‘core hours’ emerged. Shortly afterwards, in 2016, we implemented this as a company-wide policy, way ahead of the industry move before flexible work arrangements.
To get a feel for the company and what people wanted, I held regular informal ‘all staff get-together’ chats. There was no agenda, just a gathering, a chat, a brainstorm.
It means we have core hours of 9:30am – 4pm and people have to work between these hours. This is when meetings are scheduled and people need to be available. Beyond that, people can structure their hours to suit their own needs. They can arrive a bit late and leave late, or arrive early and leave early. It’s flexible for appointments, and carer responsibilities, and just life. Not everyone is a morning person, and not everyone is a night owl! It is such a simple but effective policy. I realised the key to its success was the fact that it emerged from the needs of the staff. I learned a lot from that, and since then I have developed every big policy change collaboratively, getting buy-in from others.
Wow, that’s amazing! I must say, as an employee, I love having core hours. It sounds like that was one of the professional achievements you are most proud of. What are some other things you are proud of?
In 2021, I implemented a ‘Respect and Equality Framework’ at DesignInc Sydney. I developed the program and trained every staff member face to face. The next year, I decided to do an annual refresher as I believe it is such an important topic and is fundamentally why we have such an incredible culture. I’m so glad I did, because in the last 12 months there have been a number of changes in employment legislation, particularly in regards to sexual harassment and the Positive Duty obligations for employers to take proactive and meaningful action to prevent relevant unlawful conduct from occurring in the workplace. We were ahead of the game!
Another initiative I’m proud of is the Western Sydney University (WSU) Indigenous Architecture Scholarship. As an architecture firm, a few years ago we realised how important it was to bring a First Nations voice into our work. It wasn’t until I tried to recruit that I understood how few Indigenous architects there are in Australia, and then the penny dropped that one of the key barriers is education. We decided to fund a scholarship, valued at $150k over five years, for a First Nations architect studying at WSU. The first recipient of the scholarship is now in his final year of undergraduate study, and we also offer him paid internships during university holidays.
Another initiative I’m proud of is the Western Sydney University (WSU) Indigenous Architecture Scholarship. As an architecture firm, a few years ago we realised how important it was to bring a First Nations voice into our work.
The scholarship was the beginning of a larger journey for DesignInc Sydney. We have partnered with Wiradjuri architect Craig Kerslake to form Nguluway DesignInc, one of the very few majority-Indigenous-owned architecture businesses in Australia. I work closely with Craig, and we now have three Indigenous employees, and are coming to the end of our first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). I am Chair of the RAP Working Group, and it has been a transformative journey for me both personally and professionally.
Something else I am proud of is our approach to gender equity. DesignInc Sydney signed up to the Champions of Change program a few years ago and undertook a series of ‘listening and learning’ sessions with staff. We were shocked to hear that some younger staff, particularly women, felt that having children was not compatible with their career as an architect—that they would have to choose one or the other. It was shocking to hear! In response, we developed a number of policies to provide flexibility to all employees, and a progressive Parental Leave Policy that includes extra paid leave, superannuation, a supportive return to work program, and childcare support. I’m so proud of this.
How times have changed! I have heard that DesignInc Sydney has received awards for culture, can you tell me about this?
DesignInc Sydney has received recognition for our progressive and inclusive culture. This year we were a finalist in the Property Council of Australia (PCA) ‘Diversity, Inclusion and Equity’ award. In 2022 we won the Consult Australia ‘People First’ award as well as the UDIA ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ award, and we were shortlisted in the NSW Australian Institute of Architects ‘Best in Practice’ award.
Also, I was the recipient of the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) ‘Diversity and Inclusion Champion’ award for 2022, which was a very special moment for me. To be recognised by my peers in such a way was something I was not expecting.
Congratulations! So that award is for you as an individual?
Yes, for the AHRI award submission I had to collate things I do to champion diversity and inclusion both professionally and in my own personal life. I hadn’t realised until I wrote it down how involved I am, and how important it is to me. I have run an annual charity event for ASPECT Autism Spectrum for many years and support people in my local community in a number of ways.
Diversity and inclusion is very close to my heart. I had an older brother who was severely intellectually disabled, so from the day I was born I was surrounded by people who were different. Disability and neurodiversity were integral to my life growing up—I was normalised to it, I loved and still love, the people and the community. I want my kids to grow up in that community, and to value the richness of neurodiversity. And I want to create work cultures that are inclusive, accepting, supportive and diverse.
Disability and neurodiversity were integral to my life growing up—I was normalised to it, I loved and still love, the people and the community. I want my kids to grow up in that community, and to value the richness of neurodiversity.
I can see why your passion is so deep. As well as championing diversity and inclusion at DesignInc Sydney, and in your personal life, you are also a spokesperson at an industry level. Can you tell me more about that?
Yes, over the last couple of years I’ve participated in a number of events. I have spoken at events hosted by Parlour, Champions of Change, ACA, and am presenting at an upcoming HR + L&D Innovation & Tech Fest next month. I always get a bit nervous public speaking, though I’m also proud about being a spokesperson for such important issues.
It’s such important work!
And finally, tell me about life outside work.
Well, I have two young kids who are both gorgeous and lots of work. They are both neurodiverse, so that keeps me busy! I love food and wine, but I can’t cook to save my life, so I’m very lucky to have a lovely partner who used to be a chef, and he cooks for us every night. We live up North in the beautiful bushy area of Berowra Heights, it’s a long three hour round trip commute to the office, but a while ago we made the decision to live where we love, and we sure do love it!
Thank you so much for sharing your story with me today Tara, it’s inspiring!