Many organizations have found unexpected benefits since the forced implementation of remote work strategies. These include increased efficiency and productivity, enhanced work-life balance for employees and reduced costs. Employees, for the most part, seem to enjoy the opportunity to work from home. No one misses hour-long rush-hour commutes, and many workers appreciate not having to dress for the office. The community at large also benefits, realizing decreases in pollution and traffic congestion.
Unfortunately, many companies remain in crisis mode and feel diversity is not an urgent initiative. It is important, however, for employers to continue to sustain their diversity and inclusion initiatives, taking into account both risks and advantages of remote work.
First, let’s look at the risks. One of the challenges faced by diverse, marginalized or underrepresented employee groups is being visible, being listened to and valued for their input and contributions. When employees are remote, the potential for exclusion, especially for these groups, can increase. In general, isolation makes it harder for employees to feel connected, to build relationships and to feel part of the company culture. Chance or casual conversations are no longer routine. Therefore, managers and employees must make more of an effort to keep in touch with each other.
Managers who are not experienced with or adept at establishing face-to-face regular communication with employees will struggle even more when employees are out of sight. In fact, it is not uncommon for remote employees to feel out of the loop compared with peers who work in the office. One would think remote work for all would level the playing field, but we are creatures of habit, and many managers fall back on their go-to employees even if they, too, are out of sight.
Managers may need to be coached and provided with tools to track and evaluate the frequency and quality of their communication with all team members. They need to raise their own awareness of how they include or exclude everyone on the team during online meetings and also keep in mind that some individuals may lack stable Wi-Fi connections or other technology tools that managers take for granted. Employees may benefit from coaching on how to ask for feedback and bring their accomplishments to their bosses’ attention when they are not physically in front of them. They may require coaching on how to ask for support if the tools required to work effectively from home are not adequate.
On the other hand, remote working presents significant opportunities for employers to create a more welcoming work environment for employees who have struggled in the past. Remote working can open the workplace to a number of groups who have been marginalized.
New parents, and especially single ones, often struggle with returning to work after a baby is born or adopted. Often, the only choice such parents have had is a reduction in work hours, which in turn affects income. Lower-wage employees are at particular risk as quality day care can cost upward of $10,000 per year.
And right now, many parents are fearful of putting their children in day care due to Covid-19. Working from home solves many of these problems for new parents. In fact, it helps level the playing field for parents of children of all ages: Lower-wage employees cannot afford additional care for school-aged children whose schools are closed. And all parents are concerned about the health risks of hiring caregivers, even if this is financially viable.
Women have long been the primary caregivers for families. As the population ages, more and more women are likely to struggle with this sort of work-life balance. Working from home, combined with flexible work schedules, can enable many such caregivers to work and take care of aging or ill family members.
Remote working enhances accessibility. Many disabled job candidates struggle with commuting and navigating an office setting. Their home office has already been adapted to their needs, so they are able to make meaningful contributions to their employer with minimal cost. They also can more easily make medical appointments without interfering with work.
Remote work also means people can work from anywhere; they no longer have to live in the community where their company is located. Employers can recruit the best talent for the job, regardless of where they live. This opens up new and diverse talent pools, helping organizations increase diversity faster than they normally could.
Taking advantage of what remote working offers in terms of sustaining diversity initiatives can only improve your company culture, employee engagement and respect from the communities you serve.