Can Remote Working Solve the Diversity Problem?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you’ll be very aware that for those of us that can, remote working is likely to be the future of our work. If all we need to get the job done is an internet connection, computer and phone, many of us can work from anywhere. For many industries the office is looking more and more like an expense than an essential. A remote workforce is something that employers have been considering and have started to offer their employees for a long time, but the COVID-19 pandemic has propelled the case for remote working at rapid speed. Pre-COVID, Indeed reported that search terms including the word remote saw an increase of 32% compared to the previous year. We can expect that COVID will amplify this further as workforces in an array of industries have not only proven they can do it, but their work doesn’t suffer as a result.

Working from home – or anywhere for that matter- has advantages. We can fit our daily tasks like medical appointments and picking up the kids from school around work. We’re less restricted by a stringent schedule. Many will lose a long and often costly commute every day, giving us more of our time back. We can host meetings over Zoom or Microsoft Teams to save on further travel time. Overall, remote working simply gives employees more control over their working day. However, it does have advantages for employers too, like a happier and more productive workforce.

One other advantage of a remote workforce though is that it opens the door for diversity. If employees working remotely becomes the norm, could this finally be the solution to the age-old diversity problem?

Currently, diversity is a huge talking point amongst employers, with the recent events in America and the global Black Lives Matter movement forcing many to question whether their own workplace advocates diversity and inclusion. It’s a crucial part of forming an EVP and will influence your employer brand and talent attraction capabilities. Not to mention, diversity at work creates a more innovative, creative and productive workforce, with a company culture that promotes understanding of others.

One of the biggest obstacles for a truly diverse and inclusive workplace is unconscious bias. If you’re human, you will have some bias ingrained in you, the human brain makes us group things together. As a result, leaders and CEOs, often without realising, have a tendency to hire people most like them. Manager and senior executive roles in the private sector are still 86% white and 70% male, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which proves that unconscious bias is still at large. Researchers have identified more than 150 types of unconscious bias.  

In a remote environment, unconscious biases take a back seat as hiring managers focus more on productivity, experience and ability rather than who they get on with most at the interview. Hiring becomes less about who knows the most about their line manager’s favourite sports team and more about who has the skills and knowledge to get the job done. Personalities spend less time clashing and more time collaborating on work, people are praised for a job well done rather than who they are or what they look like.

Office spaces themselves also present many restrictions to the talent available. If it’s in a difficult location to get to by public transport, you’re already eliminating any candidate who doesn’t own a car. You also need to consider the commute; the average UK commute takes almost 1 hour and most people will not be willing to travel any further each day. This means that the talent you hire are restricted by geographical area, most won’t be outside of a 60-mile radius. However, geographical area is often also linked to socio-economic status, ethnicity and educational background, particularly if jobs are in university cities. For many, relocating for a job isn’t that simple, they have roots in their hometown, are tied to other commitments or cannot afford the cost of living in certain areas.

This is why remote working, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, is being hailed as the solution to the diversity problem. Without the geographical restrictions of the office you are no longer restricted to attracting talent within a specific distance, allowing individuals with an array of backgrounds, qualifications and experience to join your business. There will be a greater pool of people with a wide variety of skills at your disposal. You can not only source talented individuals from different area codes, but also different countries! Having a global team will provide opportunities to connect with new markets and open a diverse way of thinking which will allow for successful expansion.

The flexibility of remote work will also appeal to more parents. We can’t deny that in many cases it is still women that often find themselves looking after children, and remote working could therefore help to solve the issue of gender diversity. The proportion of working mothers with dependent children was 75.1% in June 2019 whereas fathers with dependent children were more prevalent in the workplace at 92.6%. These figures show that despite changing attitudes, women are often the ones making the sacrifice of career for family life. Remote work allows for an improved work life balance for mothers who may otherwise struggle to balance family life with a full-time job. It means they can return to work more quickly should they want to and parents will receive more opportunities to progress in their careers. Parents also won’t have to uproot their family should an opportunity come along which is too far for a realistic daily commute. The idea of moving away from family or where children are settled is a huge drawback for many. The career or family ultimatum could be made redundant.

Remote work also benefits those with a disability. For many, commuting every day isn’t an easy task, workplaces that aren’t fully accessible cause daily issues, long working hours can take a physical toll and they can be judged more on disability than performance. Remote working, however, eliminates some of that friction. Disabled people can work in environments tailored to their needs and develop relationships with co-workers in a setting where their disability is unlikely to be the centre of attention. Of course, if they do have a central hub to meet with co-workers it will need to be accessible, but a predominantly remote workforce can enable people with disabilities to work comfortably from their own space, in a flexible way which suits their needs.

However, there is an argument that it’s harder to promote an inclusive company culture if everyone works remotely. It’s impossible for HR teams to support everyone and Evelyn Carter, director at diversity and inclusion consulting firm Paradigm claims that; “If you are a member of a group that’s marginalized or underrepresented, it’s already hard to be visible” and thinks remote working will only emphasise the problem. Individuals will have to strive harder to reach top positions, and managers are at risk of favouritism which is often supported by unconscious bias.

It’s true, the Coronavirus has shown many of us that remote working is possible, but it is harder to maintain those vital work relationships. However, having an isolated workforce presents a whole host of new challenges like maintaining your company culture and ensuring voices are equally heard.

Carter also said “distance reinforces people’s tendency to favour people who are similar to them. It also eliminates the opportunity for spontaneous conversations.” Managers must be given training about discrimination in the workplace; they must be made aware of their own unconscious bias and ensure that they actively try to give opportunities to all. They must manage the distribution of work well to ensure variety and no favouritism within their teams.

It’s also true that if we’re in the office, we can collaborate easily through the art of conversation. If people aren’t in our direct teams, we can still ask for their ideas and contributions giving them a chance to shine. Working from home doesn’t exactly encourage a culture of collaboration. While remote working, we tend to only talk to the people we think we need, making it harder for others to contribute, shine and prove what they can do.

However, nothing is stopping employees that want to progress from speaking up while working remotely. Asking for feedback, more work or asking questions will help them to be noticed by leaders who may be busy.

Employers also need to be aware that not all employees have the same resources at home. While we can open the workplace to a greater variety of people, employers must consider that not everyone has access to high-speed internet, software and tools required to carry out their role at home. Employers embracing a remote working culture may need to subsidise and provide the equipment necessary to ensure true inclusivity and allow all employees the same chance to work from home.

If employers can tackle the issues that a remote workforce brings and can find a way to unite the team even when they’re physically apart, it could be a huge step forward in welcoming a diverse workforce. People from all locations, backgrounds and at all stages in life have the opportunity to join a business if they work remotely, without the expense or impracticalities of relocating.

If you’d like to work on your remote working strategy and making it a fundamental part of your EVP or simply a benefit for employees, our experts are ready to help.