Evolving remote and hybrid work environments bring both advantages and disadvantages. In-person teams benefit from face-to-face interaction, which can facilitate discussions and brainstorming, strengthen interpersonal relationships, spark spontaneous and creative conversations and insights, and reduce miscommunication. But remote and hybrid work environments also bring benefits concerning productivity, recruitment, retention, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). For employers striving to reap the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce, understanding the connection between remote work and DEI is critical.
The remote work-DEI connection
Flexible, remote and hybrid work environments provide critical opportunities for individuals with disabilities and those who are neurodivergent and for whom in-person work is not feasible. The employment rate for Americans with disabilities is at an all-time high, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Individuals who may not be able to commute to or participate easily in in-person work environments can become highly valued members of a team as remote workers.
Remote and hybrid work options are also extremely helpful to working parents and other caregivers (especially women). And they enable organisations to recruit from regions where individuals may have fewer employment options. Remote work can also support DEI efforts by helping to create more culturally and ethnically diverse teams which research shows are more likely to drive innovation.
Change your mindset
But new ways of thinking are often required to help organisations realise the potential benefits of remote work arrangements to DEI and avoid any pitfalls. Even after the experience of the pandemic, when remote working became not just prevalent but, by necessity, the dominant way in which companies did business, there are some who assume that in-office work is best for productivity. This assumption can undercut your DEI efforts before they start. So long as employers doubt the long-term value of remote working compared to in-office working, making remote working as effective as it can be – not just for DEI, but for overall business success – will remain out of reach.
A change in attitude is therefore essential. According to data, workers report being more productive at home, not less; and though there is some data that suggests productivity in fact goes down, it is far from a cut-and-dried fact, to say the least, that workers ‘get more done’ in an office. Understanding this is the first step to embracing remote work for the long term, monitoring the impact of your approach and fine-tuning to ensure both high productivity and opportunities for all.
Embrace new tools
New technologies, products and services can help you to supercharge your DEI efforts through remote work.
Language and translation technology can make your workplace more inclusive to those who do not speak the dominant office language well. Accessibility tools and screen readers can empower those with impaired vision to take part fully in the life of your business. Automatic closed caption and transcription software can make video calls more accessible for individuals who are hard of hearing, or socially anxious. And time-tracking software can give employees a way of signalling overwork and avoiding burnout; some remote workers have reported working longer hours.
Most video conferencing software also permits individuals to ‘raise their hand’ or communicate via chat if they find it hard to make themselves heard.
Check in regularly
In the hustle and bustle of the office space, where individuals spontaneously come into contact, employers and managers can overestimate how much meaningful interaction they have with members of their team. A few words exchanged at the coffee machine or in a meeting is not the same as a one-to-one meeting that puts a team member’s well-being at its heart. Moreover, it’s easy for us to assume that the people around us are satisfied with work if they ‘seem fine’, which stops us from asking them directly how they’re doing and working together to manage workplace stresses and frustrations.
DEI-led businesses that are fully remote, remote-first or have a developed hybrid culture can take a more systematic and deliberate approach to checking in on members of the team. By arranging regular meetings at a set time – while still creating space for ad-hoc meetings – employers can proactively gauge the overall satisfaction of their employees, and invite them to communicate their needs and wants on an ongoing basis.
Bring clarity to your benefits offering
Those needs and wants should inform not just individualised approaches to DEI, but your overall benefits structure. Truly diverse, equitable and inclusive professional development programmes, parental leave, floating holidays and other benefits are essential for employee engagement, which translates to huge increases in productivity.
Employers can make use of the digital environment to bring clarity to their benefits offering, thereby boosting diversity, equity and inclusion, which may involve pinning it to the relevant channel in a communication platform such as Slack, or keeping it inside an easily accessible folder in the cloud. This information can be translated into different languages and shared in any onboarding materials.
Shout it from the rooftops
In order to maximise the benefit that a strong remote working culture can have on DEI, you have to communicate what you’re doing. This is key, data shows, to keeping employee motivation high. Setting out clearly in your job descriptions and website how and why you approach remote work in the way you do will also give you access to a much larger talent pool than otherwise, since those with dependents, chronic illnesses, social anxiety, among others, are more likely to feel welcomed. Individuals who live in remote areas may also feel that they can join your company as an equal member of the workforce, whose perceived commitment won’t be considered less because of their physical distance from the office.
Monitor impact and results
While remote working can benefit DEI, there are potential downsides to be aware of. Tracking the impact of your efforts is therefore key. This could involve looking at who has the option to work remotely and who does not. Are women, people of colour or other underrepresented groups more likely to serve in roles where remote and hybrid work is not offered as an option? Conversely, does more facetime lead to a greater chance of promotion? If productivity tracking or surveillance tools are used, do they tend to target certain employee groups and not others? Remote and hybrid work environments can help you enhance DEI efforts but, like all policies and practices impacting employees, they must be monitored for their actual impact on various employee groups and on employee satisfaction and retention.
The fields of technology and DEI are expanding rapidly. That brings opportunities. Employers and HR professionals who make an effort to remain up to date with technological advances will find more and more effective ways to boost their organisation’s DEI. And though it’s true that remote and remote-first working is still relatively new, and that there will continue to be a steep learning curve, it’s also worth noting the speed and efficacy with which organisations have transitioned to a remote-first structure. Recent experience provides plenty of reasons to be optimistic that we can continue to supercharge our DEI efforts in a remote world.