Remote work: one secret to a diverse workplace
Everybody knows that remote workers are happier and more productive — but working from home just might also be an important driver for inclusive, diverse companies. If you believe that diversity of thought and perspectives strengthens ideas and decisions (and you should) then you should encourage the adoption of remote-friendly policies at your workplace.
Geography doesn’t matter
I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, where housing is becoming too expensive for public servants and tech workers alike. A junior engineer with a seemingly massive starting salary might still be unable to afford comfortable housing in Palo Alto. In many cases a job at a desirable company means a brutal commute from a more affordable community. Many gifted employees will opt out of consideration for jobs in expensive areas, which reduces the pool of talent available to these companies. In other words, as tech hubs become less affordable, diversity — in the sense of choice — drops off.
Remote-friendly hiring removes the burden of keeping up with housing costs, opening up positions to a broader community of talent. Potential employees can stay in communities where they are comfortable, choosing companies without worrying about having to move. This keeps employees happiest when they're off the clock, too, which is a key factor in job satisfaction and performance.
For companies with clients in far-flung geographical areas, remote hiring makes it possible to bring on employees who can talk directly to clients in their native language without the expense of setting up a full presence there.
Some workers are perfectly capable of high performance in their professions, but would have difficulty commuting to an office every day. Physical disabilities can make transportation prohibitively challenging. Removing the requirement of on-site work opens up the field to talented employees who might otherwise be unable to consider a position. A survey by Think Beyond the Label found that 65% of workers with disabilities considered remote work the second most important factor when choosing a job.
For workers with disabilities, remote work increases productivity because they can control their environments. Working remotely makes it easier for them to access medications, assistance devices, home care, or support animals. In other words, remote work helps people with a variety of environmental and productivity requirements to contribute.
These workers who are able to perform at a high level by working remotely can help educate their peers and break down stereotypes about disabilities. At the same time, workers who do not feel comfortable discussing or disclosing their disabilities don't have to; remote work can provide a great deal of privacy while giving employers appropriate tools to track results.
Greater diversity in the workforce helps shine sunlight on blind spots and biases. Remote-friendly companies don't focus on what a leader "looks like" but instead target real results.
Remote workers don’t have to choose between work and family; this alone helps eliminate burdens, such as child care, that disproportionately affect women. Getting these obstacles out of the way can help women gain ground in leadership; in a Fast Company article, Sara Sutton of Remote.co pointed out that women represent 42% of leadership at remote-friendly companies versus 14.2% in the S&P 500 overall.
Although remote work presents the disadvantage of not being around the water cooler, it does mean that conversations are more focused on work goals. This leads to a less discriminatory working environment with fewer casual microaggressions — and if there are any problematic interactions, there is more of a paper trail. That makes it easier to detect and coach negative behavior.
At the hiring stage, biases that can crop up during in-person interviews are reduced, helping to level the playing field for people who might otherwise have more trouble getting into positions where they can thrive. "Gut feeling" decisions are reduced in favor of online skills testing and other hiring practices that help standardize and quantify candidate decisions.
Once a remote worker is hired, the company is free to concentrate on real results, rather than the outward appearance of work. This takes subjective judgment out of the equation and allows employees to be judged on what they do rather than what people think they are like. Results-based tracking removes biases around age, race, gender, sexual orientation, schedule, accessibility, salary, and personality traits such as introversion.
Most importantly, remote-friendly workplaces make employees feel trusted. Workers who control their environment have much higher psychological safety at work. There's no boss looking over their shoulders, and far fewer opportunities for workplace harassment.
With more flexible work hours, employees can take care of their children or other family members who need care. This gives workers true ownership over their work and life, helping them be both happier and more productive—and helps retain employees with diverse viewpoints that help build stronger organizations.
How to do it
The first step in preparing to be a remote-friendly workforce is to change from measuring activity to measuring results. Instead of worrying about butts in seats, measure the quality of results. Be explicit about expectations. Your employees need to know how work is done and evaluated, how to communicate, and how to solve problems. Make employee evaluations anonymous and remove cultural and other cues that might introduce bias.
With systems in place to measure performance, you can begin hiring from wherever you need to. This will naturally lead to flexible work hours as your employees accommodate each others' time zones. It is helpful to research and build a salary calculation system that takes into account the local cost of living in the areas where you hire.
Establishing remote-friendly work policies is a significant culture shift. Keep communication channels open and be prepared to address employees' concerns as you go.
It can take time for on-site workers to get acclimated to new habits that accommodate remote workers. Standup meetings that used to occur in a hallway near the team's desks might need to be moved to a conference room with better acoustics and video chat capability. Workers in other geographical areas might have different working hours and holiday schedules; it won't always be possible to get a question answered right away by walking over to someone in the office. Networking issues might make it necessary to repeat things during meetings, especially when a large number of people are attending.
At first, it might seem confusing or difficult to implement remote-friendly work policies, but the benefits are worthwhile. The field of potential candidates becomes vastly wider, production can increase dramatically, and employees are happier. Again, one benefit that shouldn't be overlooked: allowing people to work from home can drive diversity and inclusion, and that's better for everyone.