Why the Rise of Remote Work May Help Companies Become More Diverse — and More Inclusive

February 3, 2021

Map of the world with pins in it

For companies that were able to transition predominantly to remote work at the outset of the pandemic, the past year has brought countless new discoveries and realizations. This is reflected in the still-evolving attitudes toward remote work: In December 2020, PwC found that 83% of employers felt the shift was a success, compared to 73% in June. What’s more, 52% of executives now report that employees are more productive than they were before the pandemic, up from 44% in the earlier survey. 

A surprise bump in productivity isn’t the only unexpected outcome to emerge from this challenging situation. Some companies are recognizing that remote work could make it easier to attract and hire underrepresented talent that might not be abundant where their office is located. At the same time, many employees from underrepresented groups are hailing work-from-home as a stepping stone to greater inclusivity, helping them to bring their whole selves to work without facing unnecessary obstacles.

As you start to think about what happens after the pandemic, here are a few reasons why adopting a hybrid or fully remote workforce model in the long run could support your diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts.

When geographical barriers are removed, location bias and relocation costs can be eliminated

In the past, companies tended to gear the hiring process toward people who live close to the office. Research shows that for some jobs, applicants who live even five to six miles away receive one-third fewer callbacks than those who live nearer the workplace, a location bias that researchers speculate is a result of the higher turnover rates associated with longer commutes. Hiring local talent can also prove cheaper and more efficient, since companies don’t have to deal with the costs or logistics involved in talent traveling for interviews or relocating for the job. 

Unfortunately, when the local talent pool isn’t particularly diverse, it can be harder for recruiters to attract and source underrepresented candidates. In San Francisco, for example, only 5.2% of the city’s population is Black, compared to 13.4% of the U.S. population as a whole. Research also suggests that for entry-level roles, Black candidates may be almost twice as likely as other candidates to be unwilling to relocate for a position if there is no stipend provided, since moving to a new city — especially one with a high cost of living — may not be financially viable.

Remote work options can help to break down these barriers, allowing talent acquisition to cast a wider net. If a recruiter knows that their company has historically struggled to find underrepresented candidates locally, they can use data to identify areas where this talent is plentiful — then reach out to far-away candidates with remote opportunities. And if a job description notes that a role can or will be remote, this may encourage more relocation-adverse talent to apply. 

Abstract, a design workflow platform with employees across 30 states, has found that its remote-first approach allows employees to live in the place where they feel the greatest sense of community and belonging. This can be especially important to underrepresented candidates for whom relocating may mean moving to a city where few people look like them or speak their native language.

“I’ve been learning from many of our underrepresented employees that starting over in a new community can feel jarring, isolating, and even unsafe,” Kevin Smith, Abstract’s cofounder, explains on the company’s blog. “They’ve shared that it’s because, for some underrepresented people, communities often serve as a place for protection, support, and advocacy. . . . When seen through this lens, asking people to choose between their livelihood and their community weakens the individual and the community from which they are being separated.”

Working from home may foster a greater sense of psychological safety for LGBTQ+ employees

In the physical workplace, LGBTQ+ employees can face daily hurdles that their peers rarely, if ever, experience. A 2018 report found that one in five LGBTQ+ workers have had coworkers tell them or imply that they should dress in a more feminine or masculine manner (compared to one in 24 non-LGBTQ+ employees), and some felt exhausted from spending time and energy hiding their sexual orientation (17%) or gender identity (13%). Even something as mundane as using the bathroom can be a source of anxiety, with many transgender and nonbinary employees experiencing harassment for entering a restroom that doesn’t align with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Remote work can help alleviate many of these issues. Home can be a place of psychological safety where employees don’t need to stress about things like which bathroom they should use. As Cindy Nguyen, former senior designer at remote-friendly mobile and web development studio Infinite Red, points out on the company’s blog, working from home also empowers employees to worry less about “looking presentable,” so they can focus on doing their best work. For LGBTQ+ employees who have faced discrimination as a result of their gender expression, this may result in less scrutiny over the way they look — allowing their work to speak for itself. 

Working from home can also make it easier for some transgender individuals to come out as trans at work and begin the highly personal process of transitioning. In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, one nonbinary trans employee notes that being able to work from home made it less stressful to talk to coworkers while undergoing masculinizing testosterone therapy that lowered the pitch of their voice, since they could communicate via Slack instead. Similarly, a transgender software developer reports coming out to her team via a Slack message in 2019 and feeling less nervous doing so because her agency was all-remote. 

“I could make a statement that was vulnerable and uncomfortable in the safety of my office here at home,” she explains, “and then I could step away from the computer for a little bit and calm down.”

No commute and greater access to support can make work more accessible for employees with disabilities

In the United States alone, 61 million adults — roughly one in four — live with a disability and, for many, the workplace is a daunting predicament. In some cases, the commute and office environment may be too physically demanding; in others, the lack of dedicated support can make navigating the workplace a challenge. 

Remote work opens up new possibilities for disabled and chronically ill individuals to reenter the workforce without excess discomfort or difficulty. In fact, many have been asking for the chance to work remotely for years but were told it wouldn’t be possible. The rapid, widespread adoption of remote work in 2020 proved that isn’t the case.

Speaking to Arizona’s 12 News, the owner of a web design business who has type 2 spinal muscular atrophy reveals that she used to have difficulty finding aides to assist her with personal tasks at the office, since she would only need their help for a few minutes every day. Working from home, that’s not a problem, since they can also help her with tasks around the house. And in The Washington Post, a communications manager who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which can lead to chronic pain, notes that she’s able to be productive at home in a way that she couldn’t in the office, since her home is designed specifically to be comfortable for her disability. 

“All my energy before, when I worked in an office, was spent on trying to be physically at work,” she says. “It was spent on the commute and not having my symptoms get so bad that I’d have to leave midday.”

Final thoughts 

When it comes to diversifying the workforce, extending remote and flexible work options beyond the pandemic isn’t a solution in and of itself. Companies still need to put in the work to address underlying biases, stamp out discrimination, and promote inclusivity if they want to create a culture where people from all walks of life can share their talents and feel a true sense of belonging. 

As one lever in a company’s tool belt, however, remote work can be a powerful way to attract, support, and retain great talent from all backgrounds. Underrepresented employees are not the only people who’ve expressed a desire for these options in the past, but it may help to break down barriers that they uniquely face. 

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