Diversity in Remote Work— Moving Towards More Inclusive Teams and Organisations
“Diversity” is a value you will find in many corporate mission documents and policy statements, and includes aspects of equal opportunity mandated by law in many parts of the world, as well as commitments to inclusive behaviour extending well beyond legal obligation in many cases. Beyond the sometimes flowery and formulaic wordings of organisational intent, most employers have long since realised the benefits that a diverse workforce brings to the success of their organisation — alongside the remote working policies which have a complex and interesting relationship to this area of leadership practice.
The immediate diversity gains of an office-optional working policy are obvious. Being able to hire in a location-independent world means a greater chance of diversity-by-default, decreasing the likelihood of hiring in one’s own image simply due to coincidence. Looking at a hiring need from a global perspective immediately requires an objectification, around skills and aptitudes, rather than a ‘who do we know that…’ approach, and means we are likely to learn about a candidate from their application than recommendation. So we are more likely to initially communicate and judge them, perhaps even assess them, over the work itself — before invoking biases we don’t even know we have about their age, race, accent, appearance, religion and so on (try the Implicit Association Test if you want to learn more about your own biases or believe you haven’t got any, or read Gladwell’s Blink).
Remote working can be criticised for a lack of human touch, but humans cannot help but bring cognitive biases, so removing them from early assessment stages promotes true meritocracy, which benefits the organisation: “More diverse companies, we believe, are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns. This in turn suggests that other kinds of diversity — for example, in age, sexual orientation, and experience (such as a global mindset and cultural fluency) — are also likely to bring some level of competitive advantage for companies that can attract and retain such diverse talent,” writes Vivian Hunt, McKinsey & Company Managing Partner, for UK and Ireland.
Furthermore, much as we may get irritated by the stereotype of the home-working supermum, we do need to recognise that domestic and home-based commitments are disproportionately the burden of women, from mothers to carers of elderly relatives. Managing a complex portfolio of demands between family and work can develop the most amazing productivity mindset, but still too many workplaces are systematically biased against such flexibility — to their detriment, and that of their potential workforce.
Making remote work
PowerToFly, a US-based organisation founded by former digital head of The Washington Post Katharine Zaleski and former CTO of Avaaz.org Milena Berry, works to place women in remote positions around the world in order to stimulate workplace diversity on a global scale.
“It’s the total missing link,” says Zaleski of the remote working model. “We’ve spent the last 100 years working the same way. … We have to change the office culture to bring more women back into the workforce. Women are not going to change — they’ve already changed a lot. Offices were never set up for women.”
We’d argue that things are changing, but too slowly. An office-optional approach for ALL team members, not just parents or carers, is the route to true inclusivity.
Other social changes are impacting the world of work too, and there is a strong case for remote communications as a facilitator of transparency and accountability in the workplace. This is absolutely not to imply that harassment, discrimination and bullying cannot go on in the remote space — but these activities best thrive when conversations happen in secret and assumptions go unexamined. Visible teamwork and open communications change the culture of an organisation’s interpersonal relationships. As pointed out in a recent article about instant communications in remote chat, “when it comes to instant communications, ephemeral does not mean inconsequential” — and even private conversations can be screenshotted for perpetuity/evidence.
And you don’t need an abusive and toxic culture, for remote to support diversity. The most inclusive and fair companies exist within a social context where this isn’t always or hasn’t always been the case. As Cindy Nguyen from Infinite Red points out in this wonderful article about their culture 5 Ways Remote Work Leads to More Inclusive Companies and Teams : “As a woman in a remote company, my work performance is not associated with my physical appearance. I don’t have to worry about “looking presentable” and can focus on getting things done instead. For the record, no one should have to worry about feeling safe at work, remote or not. But as long as workplace bias and abuse remain big problems, I’ll advocate for remote work as one way to mitigate their impact.”
An enabling workplace
Disabled people as well can benefit a great deal from office-optional working policies, provided they embrace the situation holistically. Enabling and adapting tech for disabled people to work from home may be more expensive than a typical set-up, but providing these adaptations is a legal necessity wherever the workplace, and might make you question how flexible you are in your tech set-up generally (And if you’re not, why not? Genuine security/compliance reasons, or just ‘we’ve always done it like this’?)
Forever solving problems in a world not built for their needs, disabled people are the experts in their own support requirements, and how to repurpose and adapt and be creative to work with difficult situations — positive attributes for many professional roles, indeed exemplifying the benefits of a diverse workforce. It’s hard to solve problems for customers/stakeholders without any means of experiencing and identifying with those pain points, this simply won’t happen if we’re all the same. A combination of remote work options and flexible working generally, can enable the inclusion of people with physical and sensory disabilities in a diverse range of roles, and neurodiversity brings a further dimension to the team, as Jane Hatton from specialist employment agency Evenbreak points out in another recent episode of the 21st Century work life podcast. “Familiar surroundings adapted to their access needs, the ability to manage work hours around health condition and other commitments, and autonomy in managing own workload…” all lead to: “Productive, happy, loyal, committed staff.” And reminds us all that what’s good for disabled people is good for the workplace generally.
Indeed, the diversity possible within remote teams often starts from the premise of opening opportunities up to people who would not be within the labour force at all without this option. I once worked with a fantastic remote account manager who was simply too agoraphobic and anxious to ever make an off-site visit, and who struggled to face video-conferences even internally — but could do everything her job required while feeling totally secure behind a phone or email interface. Yes, it was occasionally a struggle when a client would have preferred a Skype or even a meeting, but generally someone else could take that aspect of the work on — and the benefits of having this person as part of our team definitely outweighed the challenges. This conversation was only made possible by a very transparent and psychologically-safe environment where people could share such personal vulnerabilities, and look at what each person needed to do their best work.
So remote is not a magic wand for diversity issues, but as more and more organisations embrace the potential of transitioning to an office-optional setup, the business case for diversity needs to stay firmly on the agenda. Diverse life experiences and perspectives brings new solutions to challenges in every industry, and not just the stuff which gets monitored officially like gender and ethnicity, but diversity of age, culture, location, health, interests.
Remote working enables all of this to be optimised, but as with other aspects of managing the transition, a change management perspective is valuable as a team becomes less homogeneous. Just as managers may need professional development to embrace remote, and continual learning and openness to new ideas is essential for personal growth anyway. For example, a team made up of people from different cultures may include divergent mental models and expectations about work ethics and productivity, and an entirely different non-verbal communication vocabulary, all of which might be outside the manager’s own experience — and now require managing across a team situation.
So while a mix of different people and viewpoints on a team avoids groupthink and challenges our assumptions, this means leadership which is comfortable with the creative tension of differing points of view. And to go beyond diversity thinking to true inclusivity is a further step, which 21st century team leaders will have to get on board with, in order to truly embrace all that a distributed and flexible workforce has to offer.