Working from home is great for diversity. Let’s keep it going
Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the conversation around remote work has been growing. It started with companies encouraging employees to stay at home. Within two weeks most companies, especially in tech, were mandating employees to work remotely and to suspend any business travel.
Right now, the boom in remote work is due to social distancing, the necessity for people to keep their distance from each other to slow down the advance of the coronavirus.
But there are many other positive impacts from remote work beyond just not catching a virus. Working from home cuts commute time, which is often wasted time. It’s green, since it reduces the fossil fuel burn and carbon release of car commutes. It erases the high cost of business travel.
Remote work can benefit businesses in other valuable ways. It can improve diversity. Any major company, especially in tech, will tell you that one of its top business concerns is a lack of talent. Attracting and retaining good people is critical. Remote work can open the door to talent pools that are more diverse in three key areas: gender, accessibility, and race.
Flexible work and remote work, in particular, can help women return to work after having a baby or while caring for a family member. According to a 2015 AARP report on caregiving in America, 6 in 10 caregivers are women. This ratio has been pretty stable over the years, and with the 65+ population in the U.S. projected to almost double by 2060, the number of women expected to care for others will only grow.
For a long time, moms returning from maternity leave have had very little choice in balancing their new duties at home with work. The best option has often been a reduction in hours, which, more often than not, has led to reduced career opportunities. Remote work allows women the flexibility to be part of their children’s lives, while also maintaining a consistent presence at work.
Remote working empowers women to pursue a career, not just employment. Often, women coming back into the workforce were limited to service and support roles, such as administrative jobs. Technology advancements, coupled with a higher degree of acceptance for digital services, have started to open new career opportunities for women in fields such as education, medicine, data analysis, and marketing.
According to the 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, just over 19% of people with self-identified disabilities are employed. Succeeding in the workplace is not easy for employees with physical or mental disabilities, who often face discrimination, especially in highly competitive industries such as tech.
The most obvious advantage remote work offers to people with disabilities is avoiding the commute to the office. Depending on location and type of disability, a commute can mean a lengthy and stressful process of finding van pools and wheelchair-accessible public transportation. Remote work positions look more appealing to people who don’t live within a reasonable commute distance and who don’t relish the thought of relocating.
Being able to work in a home environment, already designed around the needs of the individual, allows for higher productivity and job satisfaction. Working from home also allows the employee to fit doctor or physiotherapy visits into their schedule without disrupting their work and adding more commute time to their day. Lastly, being on their own turf empowers people with disabilities by letting them be seen for their work skills more than their physical disability.
The level of ethnic and racial diversity in America differs dramatically from state to state. This means that companies in less diverse places might need to recruit from outside the area and expect new employees to relocate. But new hires might not like the idea of moving to a less diverse place. They might find themselves struggling to fit in both at work and in the community.
Let’s take the tech sector and Silicon Valley as an example. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2018, Silicon Valley had just over 2 million people, and only 2% of those were black. If companies relied solely on the local talent pool, the annual diversity reports many publish wouldn’t show much progress. Attracting diverse talent from outside the area is also complicated by the high cost of living in tech centers such as the Bay Area and Seattle.
It seems absurd that in 2020 we are still talking about the level of energy required for minority groups to fit into the office culture. Yet, for many minority workers, the daily office reality includes code-switching (switching between two languages) and micro-aggressions. The strain does not end with the workday. The newly relocated employee might struggle to find a community culture that offers the food, or services, or places of worship they’ve grown up with.
Remote work would let companies find new talent pools, and also let employees stay in the environment where they’re happiest and most productive.
I’m not suggesting that remote work is a panacea for the multifaceted diversity issues facing many organizations. Any company leader in any sector should condemn racism and intolerance and foster inclusion so that minority workers feel valued. Alongside that effort, remote work can help boost those diversity numbers a little faster.
There is a lot of debate on whether working from home is more or less productive than being in the office. Some think creativity might be at risk when employees can’t work directly with their peers.
In truth, the success of remote work depends on the person’s job, the company they work for, their personality, and other factors such as commute time, the kind of office they normally work in, how many other people on their teamwork remotely, and the list goes on.
For many of us, as “shelter in place” has rolled out to many counties around California and is being considered in other major cities, whether we enjoy working from home or not doesn’t really matter—it’s our new reality, at least for the time being.
But when the crisis eventually passes, I hope the companies that rushed to get their employees working from home will not be too quick to fall back into their work-happens-at-work mindsets, but rather incorporate remote work practices into their businesses for the long run. They should purposefully use remote work to foster a more diverse workforce, because remote work is good for diversity, and diversity is great for business.
This article was originally published on Fast Company