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Fostering Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in a Remote-Work Environment

Employees increasingly want the ability to choose what’s best for them, and research shows workers are more productive when they have the option to work remotely.

But for many people, remote work is about more than productivity. For people who have disabilities, as well as parents of young children and those without access to a vehicle, remote work opens new opportunities and gives them the ability to make a better living.

For employers, remote work allows them to cast a wider net and reach qualified workers outside of their immediate area.

What impact does remote work have on a company’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals?

Studies show that diverse, equitable, inclusive and accessible workplaces lead to better-performing organizations.

Pandemic-related remote work has brought certain inequalities to light, such as people of color are less likely to be working in remote positions. Many traditionally marginalized workers felt that conditions improved with remote work.

Women have been traditionally responsible for the majority of family and childcare responsibilities, and may have a harder time joining the workforce and balancing childcare and commuting. Likewise for people with physical or mental disabilities, and for whom commuting and discriminatory treatment is a daily reality. LGBTQ+ professionals also face challenges such as blatant discrimination or microagressions.

Diversity refers to all aspects of human difference, social identities, and social group differences, such as race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, socio-economic status, age, religion, language, culture, and more. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is highly valued by most workers, good for business, and essential to building a more equitable future for all workers.
Who is spending more time at home, and who’s in the office?

As you look at who in your company or organization is able to work remotely, take note if scheduling flexibility is given to certain demographics over others. Historically, the option to work from home has not been evenly distributed, Before COVID, less than 30% of workers could work remotely. In many jobs, this may be due to the roles and types of jobs people work. But to make sure these differences aren’t playing out along gender, race, or other lines, seek to understand which of your employees gets to choose whether and when to work remotely.

How does remote work affect promotions?

Out of sight, out of mind… It’s a common assumption to think that people who work onsite tend to be more heavily rewarded than people working remotely. On the other hand, remote work might actually be an advantage instead of a drawback. Recent studies show that a majority of remote workers report they are more productive at home than at the office. And being more productive can lead to promotions and higher earnings. Without the distractions and interruptions of the workplace, employees can really dig into their work and feel they’re making more of a contribution.

So who benefits most from telework?

There are certain groups who notably have a harder time traveling to an office for their jobs.

  • Those with primary care responsibilities (primarily women). According to a YWCA report, women shoulder the brunt of family-care responsibilities, and millions of them left the workforce in 2020 due to challenges caused by school and childcare closings. Overall, women express a stronger need to telework than do men.

  • Employees with physical or mental disabilities. According to the Department of Labor, it’s estimated that over six million people in the US workforce have some form of disability, and having to commute to a job can be a barrier to many of these people.

  • People who face housing issues. Prior to the pandemic, there had been an increase in the number of people commuting more than 90 minutes a day, often because they can’t afford to live near their jobs. When you don’t have to live near your job, it opens up a lot of possibilities for many employees.

Even before the COVID pandemic, workers were increasingly wanting flexibility. A 2019 study by McKinsey & Company found work-life flexibility was the number thing employees wanted. However, instead of carefully planned policies, the pandemic forced a lot of employers into spliced-together remote work arrangements resulting in feelings of isolation and other mental health issues. Those ill effects are still seen across the business landscape, especially among traditionally underrepresented groups.

Employers must design better policies.

For some employees, remote work means the ability to work at all. Telework can alleviate some of the difficulties faced by minority groups in the workplace, such as racism, ageism, sexism, and implicit and explicit bias. Of course, not all jobs are remote-friendly. One reason COVID disproportionately affected communities of color is because people of color are less likely to be in remote positions.

Have you ever heard the phrase “what gets measured gets managed”? Only when you know the full extent of the problems can you work to change them.

One place to start is to create an internal poll to evaluate the barriers to diversity and inclusion. Once you begin to gather data, you can change policies and programs as needed. Some employers are able to set up a hybrid work mentoring program to help minority groups within the company or organization, and to address their concerns. Employers can also engage in regular “diversity talks” to ensure people from all backgrounds feel valued and that their opinion matters.

Some traditionally underrepresented groups show an even stronger preference for hybrid work. And of the employees who prefer hybrid work, 71% say they would look elsewhere for opportunities if they weren’t available at their current job.

Flexibility must go beyond location and better include the needs of a diverse workforce. Employers and managers must take a careful look at why workers have been leaving jobs and how they can work to retain employees and make everyone feel included.

This requires setting guidelines and requiring managers to gather employee feedback regularly, and then incorporate that feedback into updated inclusion practices. If a company doesn’t have an inclusive environment – even if it has a diverse workforce, it will likely struggle to improve long-term performance.

Some organizations are prioritizing policies that support flexibility, such as extended parental leave, flexible hours, more work-from-home options, and even PTO for holidays such as Juneteenth.

It is also imperative to build stronger teams so remote workers don’t feel isolated. Effective team building fosters a sense of trust and collaboration. When employees get to know one another better, they form connections and a sense of psychological safety in which employees feel comfortable asking for help and sharing feedback.

A diverse workplace is an innovative workplace, and thus a more profitable workplace.

To maintain a competitive edge, enterprising companies need the best and brightest people working in a diverse and inclusive environment. Remote work can make it easier to overcome the barriers many underserved people have traditionally faced in conventional workplaces.

The option to work remotely is good for employers and employees both, and it is a step toward establishing more inclusive workplaces. But without measurements in place, you won’t be able to ensure that your hybrid workforce is supported, and not further disenfranchised, by hybrid work.

For leaders who do the hard work to re-imagine a more flexible, open and inclusive hybrid work model, which incorporates the organization’s diversity, equality and inclusion efforts, there are sure to be marked gains in employee happiness and retention.

When managed properly, hybrid and remote work can improve employee experience, increase productivity, decrease drive-alone commutes and the carbon footprint of commuting, and enables companies and organizations to be more inclusive and diverse.

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