A version of this article originally appeared on HR.com.
The previous two years have shown us that remote work is here to stay – in one form or another – for the global workforce. With the transition to a more flexible work environment comes the opportunity to take a big leap forward in workplace diversity and inclusion.
Employers are recognizing that the ability to work from anywhere is much more than a relaxed dress code and transitioning to meeting over video calls. Remote work can level the playing field for marginalized groups, removing barriers to entry for many people and giving leaders previously unheard of opportunities to hire and retain diverse teams.
Diversity and inclusion are essential to the long-term health of an organization. In a survey of over 1700 companies, organizations with above-average diversity produced a greater proportion of revenue from innovation (45% of total) than from companies with below average diversity (26%). “Different perspectives, knowledge and insights allow for diverse teams to more effectively solve problems, leading to greater internal efficiencies and more innovative product development,” said Adriana Gascoigne, Founder of Girls in Tech at Terminal’s Unlock summit this year.
But in order to maximize those benefits, leaders need to adopt a remote-first mindset — and tailor their leadership approach to create a great work environment for everyone at the company. An inclusive, diverse workplace takes more than allowing employees to work from home. It requires leaders to ensure remote work is meeting the specific needs of different marginalized groups.
Remote work makes it easier for women to stay in the workforce
Women are more likely to want remote work than men: About 68% of women said their preferred post-pandemic workplace would be remote, compared with 57% of men. Remote work gives women back the time that they would have lost to commuting, making it easier to balance their careers with the familial obligations that disproportionately fall on them. With families juggling parenting and elder care amidst the pandemic, millions of women left the workforce in 2020 to cover caretaking. And women of color are represented disproportionately in these numbers.
But even as schools reopen and life returns to normal, women are still juggling caretaking with working. Leaders need to listen to what their employees are going through in order to best support them. “I love the idea of leading with empathy. Women do a lot of the unseen work done in the workforce. And the responsibilities of a household are also often unseen,” said Karin Tsai, Director of Engineering at Duolingo at Terminal’s Unlock summit, adding, “I think a first step for leaders is to be aware of that and to provide psychologically safe spaces for women to actually express what they are doing.”
Black workers are more likely to want to work remotely than white workers
A recent survey revealed that only 3% of Black knowledge workers want to return to full-time in-person work compared to 21% of white workers in the United States. Black people are chronically underrepresented in knowledge worker jobs, which can breed an isolating work environment rife with stress and microaggressions. Despite making up 13.4% of the general population, only 2 to 5.3% of people working the tech industry are Black. And that underrepresentation continues through the ranks of leadership. Only 8% of managers are Black and there are only four Black CEOs in the Fortune 500.
Remote work breaks down geographic barriers, making it easier to hire people from more varied backgrounds and demographics. It also might make it easier to hire and retain Black knowledge workers, many of whom would prefer to work in a hybrid or fully remote structure. What’s critical is that leaders take steps to foster sponsorship and support Black employees’ advancement. With more diversity in employee backgrounds comes a greater need for allyship. Leaders should introduce opportunities for professional development and promotions to workers who otherwise might not find them. A recent McKinsey study revealed that more than 67 percent of Black employees do not have a sponsor at work, despite 87 percent companies reporting that they have sponsorship programs in place. Leaders need to stay vigilant to ensure that Black employees aren’t at a disadvantage at their organizations and proactively look for ways to offer their allyship.
Remote work can improve opportunities for disabled workers
For the 26% of American workers who have some form of disability, commuting can pose a significant barrier to employment. Remote work opens up opportunities for people with disabilities to join teams and meaningfully contribute. Not only that, but remote work can make some disabilities less evident to coworkers, freeing disabled workers from stigma.
Employers are legally required to provide disabled employees with reasonable accommodation that improves accessibility. But employees with disabilities may still require other accommodations to perform their essential functions, and not all remote workplace equipment is clearly defined in federal regulations. Leaders must also keep in mind that not all disabilities may be reported to management, so companies should offer home workstation accommodation to everyone. Many remote-first companies offer a stipend to set up home workstations, which is a great way to be inclusive and to tailor benefits packages to remote work.
Relocation is impossible for many talented workers
While 67% of global engineers report wanting to work for a US tech company, nearly 40% are unwilling to relocate to do so. Within the US as well, not all job candidates are willing or able to relocate. The reasons could be multifarious: LGBTQIA+ employees might not feel safe moving from a large, inclusive city to a smaller town. Workers might not be able to relocate away from where their spouse is employed or where their elderly parent lives. And economically disadvantaged workers or workers supporting large families might find themselves facing grueling commutes from far-flung suburbs if they were to relocate to expensive job centers.
Leaders looking to bolster diversity and inclusion can help their efforts considerably by sourcing candidates from new markets. “If you want to start a company and you want to build a great team – a truly great, differentiated team – the only way to do it is by being remote, because you have a local capacity constraint in whatever community you’re in today, and there’s no way the best people in the world for all the different roles you need live within 10 miles of you,” said Andrew Dudum, Co-Founder + CEO, Hims & Hers at Terminal’s Unlock summit.
Remote work offers big opportunities to improve diversity and inclusion
The option to work remotely isn’t just a nice-to-have for employee morale. It represents a huge leap forward in creating more inclusive organizations. When companies make commuting to headquarters a daily requirement for employment, it restricts hiring and harms marginalized employees. But leaders must still put in the work to make remote workplaces a healthy, safe environment for everyone. As Jossie Haines, VP of Software Engineering and Head of DEI at Tile put it at Terminal Unlock 2021, “Everybody needs to truly feel like a first-rank employee.”
Of course, the opportunities for advances in workplace diversity and inclusion depend on a sustained, long-term commitment from company leadership. In order to better understand the individual experiences of employees, managers must proactively check in with their reports and mold flexible policies around how people actually want to work, not how they think people want to work. With a renewed focus on inclusion for everyone, the remote work revolution truly can help companies hire, foster and retain talent like never before.