How Remote Work Strategies Encourage Diversity
By Lauren Park and Lin Grensing-Pophal | 12 min read
For a distinct group of people, working at home during the pandemic became a de facto part of their employment. And this presents an opportunity: strong work-from-home options can help attract and retain people who diversify your workforce. Such options contribute to a company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals; a diverse workforce also means broader hiring options and wider experiences and perspectives for solving problems and empathizing with customers’ concerns.
Viewed from an HR leadership perspective, remote work policies represent an important way to attract and retain talented employees.
Employees are increasingly demanding the opportunity to work remotely and balking at the prospect of returning to the office. According to a 2021 survey of 14,000 people across Europe by The Future Laboratory and Samsung Electronics, just 14% of European workers who began doing their jobs remotely during the pandemic said they wanted to return full time, and more than half said they had become more productive as a result of working from home. In the United States, when people have the chance to work flexibly at least one day a week, 87% of them take it, a 2022 McKinsey survey of 25,000 Americans from a wide range of demographics, occupations, and geographies found.
It’s not just that people like working remotely; there’s data showing that such flexible arrangements increase productivity.
For example, an analysis of survey data during 10 months of the pandemic that ran until March 2021 found that close to 60% of workers felt they were more productive than they expected when they worked from home, according to researchers from the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology, Stanford, and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Respondents in the monthly survey of 30,000 U.S. workers on average estimated a 7% productivity increase in a research summary published at the Chicago Booth Review. And they’re achieving this productivity bump even while working less (about 32 hours per week, compared with 36 hours pre-pandemic). Respondents also reported better sleep and less commuting.
Redefining what “at work” means
Remote or hybrid work policies can make workplaces more welcoming for women, people of color, and employees with disabilities – thus bolstering DEI efforts. Consider:
- Many working women have roles as caregivers, and flexible work policies help them stay in the workforce. A Pew Charitable Trusts analysis of U.S. labor data, for example, shows that while fewer women were in the workforce in March 2022 than prior to the pandemic, the employment rates have recovered in some regions where there is a high proportion of white-collar roles. “Remote work, a loosening of 9–5 workday constraints, and evolving ideas such as ‘returnships’ to help women back to careers after extended absences all could make it easier for women, especially those with children, to hold jobs,” the organization notes.
- A significant number of people of color who work remotely found they felt more comfortable in their organizations, according to University of California at Hastings researchers. “When working from home, 64% reported being better able to manage stress, and 50% reported an increase in feelings of belonging at their organization,” the researchers wrote in Harvard Business Review. Many found it less stressful to deal with colleagues when not in the office, where they risk being at the receiving end of unintended bias, microaggressions or worse, overt discriminatory, or harassing behavior.
- People with disabilities who may have mobility issues with getting to the office benefit from more flexible policies. In the United States, disabled workers are employed at higher rates now than ever, Bloomberg reports.
- Those who experience anxiety or otherwise find it stressful to be among people or in meetings in person are another group benefiting from more flexible policies. Gene Boes, CEO of Northwest Center, a Seattle-based nonprofit working with employers such as Microsoft and Amazon to place people with disabilities, wrote that the flexibility afforded by pandemic-inspired remote work policies is “exactly what people with disabilities have been fighting for long before we first heard of COVID-19.”
Now that the pandemic has eased, many corporate leaders are calling for people to return to the office. Close to half of leaders say their companies already require or are planning to require employees to return full time to in-person work in the next year, according to Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index report.
But it could be a mistake to follow a one-size-fits-all approach here. For example, the Microsoft report shows that employees are now more likely to prioritize their health and well-being over work than before the pandemic. People’s priorities have shifted.
Employee engagement and retention challenges go by a number of names these days, such as “great resignation,” “quiet quitting,” and “talent shortages” for managers trying to hire people in key positions. Whatever challenge your company faces, diversifying your hiring pool can help. Making working remotely an explicit element of your DEI strategy can help attract and retain diverse talent. Flexible work policies can be a way for companies to expand their recruiting efforts beyond their local areas – and companies can create tailored programs to allow people to work from home and find ways to ensure that managers continue to support them.
How leaders can craft the right policies
Without clear and equitable policies related to remote work – such as which positions and employees are eligible, how the work week will be structured, whether employees will be expected to spend a certain amount of time on-site – some employees may feel they are being treated unfairly or not being offered the same opportunities as others.
Involving HR and other leaders in DEI conversations about work models and how remote and hybrid work will be managed is crucial to ensuring that employees are treated equitably and that DEI is top-of-mind in all management considerations. Leaders also can contribute to discussions about how to assess performance fairly in a hybrid organization.
Everyone can work from wherever is most conducive to them, including our office in downtown New Orleans, which is open and available.
– Jasmyn Farris, Chief People Operations Officer at iSeatz
That’s the role played by Jasmyn Farris, chief people operations officer at iSeatz, a travel industry loyalty services company where many of its 193 employees are remote. Farris leads the company’s DEI practice with the support of her team, the CEO, and senior leadership rank priorities.
“Granting employees at various levels within an organization the opportunity to work remotely or [in a hybrid arrangement] can be viewed as a demonstration of trust and inclusivity and a smart way of doing business,” Farris says.
The company has continued the flexible work policy that has been in place since before the pandemic. Farris says that while the policy requires people to attend twice-a-year on-site meetings, “everyone can work from wherever is most conducive to them, including our office in downtown New Orleans, which is open and available.” The company offers financial support for home office expenses, virtual collaboration tools, and organization-wide training for better communication with colleagues in different locations.
Ensure that managers avoid “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome
Proximity bias – the idea that managers only notice people they can see working – is a weakness often pointed out by both employers and employees discussing flexible work arrangements. One of the drivers for those who prefer working on-site is the alleviation of concerns that when they’re out of sight, they will also be out of mind, impeding their opportunities for professional growth.
The challenges for employees are real. Ursula Mead, co-founder and CEO of InHerSight, which provides reviews of employers for women, says her company’s research during the pandemic found that a significant percentage of 1,350 women surveyed – 37% – felt they didn’t have the same access to new products and opportunities since working from home. In addition, 44% said they’d experienced an increase in communication lapses, and 28% had been excluded from projects or decisions they otherwise would have been a part of, Mead says.
While employees crave flexible work policies, organizations need to be alert to the potential of remote workers to be less visible – literally and figuratively – than those physically in the work setting. This type of bias can result in managers:
- Overlooking remote employees for special assignments, projects, or development opportunities
- Viewing remote employees as less productive or engaged than their on-site colleagues
- Excluding remote employees from important meetings or not sufficiently engaging them during virtual meetings
Mead says that if companies have not been monitoring leadership and advancement pipeline for indicators of inequity before now, this would be the time to start. “Are you only promoting the people you see, and why is that? Why are the people you see only one demographic? What does that say about your company culture? These are the questions employers need to be asking themselves,” she says.
To minimize or eliminate the potential for proximity bias, Amberlicia Anthony Thane, a consultant with Talogy, an assessment and talent management company with more than 600 employees in 20 countries, suggests having conversations with managers and supervisors about the potential for this type of bias and ensuring equity when establishing teams and holding meetings. Thane also urges employers to set up a quantifiable merit system that ensures that all employees are being measured by the same standards and competencies regardless of where they’re located.
Mead points to an example from a company she spoke with; they noted that when the return to the office became optional, those on-site were predominantly white males. “There was a growing concern about how differences in face time with leaders would impact advancement,” she says. In this case, she says, “the concern was that women and underrepresented groups who were choosing to stay remote would be even less likely to advance.”
After recognizing this discrepancy, Mead says her startup company plans to measure and monitor the difference in progression between remote and in-person employees.
At iSeatz, Farris says the company uses a number of tools to avoid inadvertently overlooking people who work remotely. For example, managers look at how their employees are staying in roles and advancing to new ones and compare those to industry averages in search of signs of burnout or signals that people are not advancing in their careers. They also conduct training sessions to help all employees look for signs of unconscious bias. And the company offers the chance for employees (including those not located in the main New Orleans office) to request a meeting with leaders or teams they support.
Making remote workers feel like they belong
Managing employees remotely presents special challenges to making those working at home feel like part of the team. Companies need to ensure that managers and supervisors are focused on building relationships with both remote and on-site employees while providing them opportunities to interact with each other. Listening and doing a lot of check-ins with employees can help companies recognize issues as they come up. Creating avenues for regular, honest, two-way communication with employees contributes to the creation of a positive culture.
Anastasia Chernenko, employer brand manager with Belkins, says that ongoing efforts to engage remote workers are paying off for the B2B lead-generation company.
Our team has freedom and flexibility – in working hours, in the workplace, and even in KPI setting and unlimited days off we can take. We are sure all the goals will be reached and tasks completed in time.
– Anastasia Chernenko, Employer Brand Manager, Belkins
Before the pandemic, Chernenko says, Belkins had an in-office work structure for its 240 employees. “We strongly believed that working in the office was much more effective for productivity and people engagement,” she says. But when COVID-19 emerged and teams worldwide were forced to work remotely, “our biggest challenge was to preserve our unique engagement culture.”
Chernenko says their work setting is “more like a community where people come to meet their mates and spend time together.”
Employees work in the office, connect virtually, or do some combination. They play board games, bring their pets to work, listen to music, even watch movies, she says. “All these small and trivial things made people happy and engaged and turned us into a community based on trust and reliability,” she says. “Our team has freedom and flexibility – in working hours, in the workplace, and even in key performance indicator (KPI) setting and unlimited days off we can take. We are sure all the goals will be reached and tasks completed in time.”
To monitor the pulse of employees’ emotional states, Chernenko says the company’s “people team” conducts a Friday poll on Slack to monitor the pulse of the team’s emotional state. “There is only one question to answer: ‘How was your week?’ You can choose the right emoji and write a comment if you wish,” she says. Poll results typically show positive feedback, and the people team responds to employees who need support.
In addition, Belkins’s teams use Slack to help them constantly engage, Chernenko says. “Everyone is welcome to join discussions, speak up, and share ideas about projects or internal company processes.” Weekly meetings, instituted during remote and hybrid work, help teams stay on track with tasks.
Their efforts are paying off in terms of employee engagement and loyalty. Their eNPS (employee net promoter score) is 93 on a 100-point scale, Chernenko says, “meaning that people are loyal and would recommend Belkins as a place to work.” Chernenko does research to benchmark her company’s results against others.
Employing a variety of tools to capture employee feedback is important to ensure that managers address employees’ varied needs and work preferences. As an entirely remote company, iSeatz lets its employees work from wherever they wish. Says Farris, “action-oriented feedback loops include culture roundtables, pulse surveys, employee engagement surveys, and stay interviews that are one-to-one conversations between a team member and usually a member of the people and culture team to solicit feedback, insights, and experience that are critical to the employee’s job satisfaction and retention.”
When companies do the work to listen and are transparent about the areas they need to grow and improve, they reap the benefits of employees who feel seen and heard.
– Ursula Mead, Co-founder and CEO, InHerSight
The company also holds several kinds of gatherings: monthly virtual all-hands meetings for business updates and special event celebrations, “daily stand-ups” for any teams with time-sensitive work and dependencies, full company meetings on-site in New Orleans for a full week in both April and October, and satellite team visits across the country.
Mead of InHerSight says creating an inclusive workplace for remote employees means acknowledging the company’s communication flaws and cultural roadblocks. An inclusive workplace “requires strong listening and feedback channels that employees feel safe using and being intentional and transparent about who gets what opportunities and why,” she says. “When companies do the work to listen and are transparent about the areas they need to grow and improve, they reap the benefits of employees who feel seen and heard.”
Communications and other efforts required to build a culture that includes flexible work arrangements and supports employees no matter their location are worth the investment. This is especially true in terms of keeping good people. Farris says that iSeatz has retained 95% of its critical team members while employee survey scores rise. Belkins has posted a similar retention rate, Chernenko says.
Many groups can benefit from flexible work models – and conversely can be negatively affected when they don’t have this flexibility, including employers who may see increased productivity, engagement, and commitment from employees. In addition, a remote work model allows companies to draw from a broader and more diverse candidate pool and provide an environment more appealing to women, people of color, and those with disabilities.
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