Companies' progress toward deeper diversity, equity & inclusion has made great strides, but can it overcome the move to a more remote-working environment?
Diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) movements have been part of organizational landscapes for decades. There is certainly a moral case — that it is just the right thing to do. Moreover, the business case behind DEI has been well documented for many years.
While some companies have implemented substantive DEI programs, proving that ethical conduct and profit can co-facilitate, social justice movements have gained greater recognition, and increased public pressure on organizations to create more DEI work environments. Simultaneously, organizations were thrust into the world of remote work during the pandemic, and now 78% of workers still wish to remain remote. As companies try to balance remote work with in-person office attendance, one thing is clear — the old way of working is out, and a new era of hybrid work is here to stay.
Given that, stakeholders are looking to organizations to build more equitable workplaces and communities. Companies have made commitments to DEI since 2020; yet, many have yet to realize positive DEI outcomes. This may be because a key part of the equation is missing — a genuinely supportive culture.
However, a conundrum emerges when considering these two trends in tandem. Organizations are moving toward remote work but also striving to create cultures of inclusion. At a time when people are working further apart, organizations are seeking to bring them closer together in deeper and more meaningful ways.
Pros & cons of these co-occurring trends
PRO: Remote benefits of DEI programs
There are DEI advantages to working remotely, of course. First, including a broader swath of individuals with varied lived experiences in a remote environment is easier to achieve. People who live in faraway areas without easy access to public transportation can work alongside those in more urban areas, without having to endure long and expensive commutes. Those with disabilities, who may find it taxing to navigate the journey into the office, can work from home. Including employees from nations outside of organizations ‘home countries also is easier in a remote environment.
Second, remote work makes it easier to incorporate those with caregiving responsibilities, including women who make up 66% of caregivers in the United States. The pandemic demonstrated that there are drawbacks to these twin responsibilities. The lockdown created unique circumstances in which employees and children were working and schooling from home simultaneously. Now that children have returned to school, some of the stressors of working from home while caretaking might be alleviated. In that new environment, caregivers may find that working from home allows for greater efficiency in managing the two aspects of their lives, especially for those who prefer to integrate work and life.
CON: Limitation of remote DEI
Organizational culture is a collection of values, sanctioned conduct, and sense-making that guide team members. A positive culture exemplifies qualities and leads to improved performance, whereas a dysfunctional culture can hinder performance. Culture influences all aspects of business, including communications, compensation, and comportment. It allows for internal integration and external adaptation. Companies that prioritize culture can weather difficult changes better than companies that do not.
Culture is a key advantage in attracting talent and responding to competition. Research shows that 77% of workers consider a company’s culture before applying, and almost half of employees would leave their job for a lower-paying one at an organization with a positive culture. Culture is also one of the top indicators of employee satisfaction and a reason that almost two-thirds of employees stay in their job.
Positive cultures affect profit as well. Companies with healthy cultures are 1.5-times more likely to experience revenue growth of 15% or more over three years, and 2.5-times more likely to experience significant stock growth over three years. But only 31% of HR leaders believe their organizations have the culture they need to drive business.
Still, culture a key competency that is critical to advancing DEI programs. And forming culture — norms and routines — is hobbled by remote work. How can DEI initiatives advance when the sole commonality of employees is screen contact?
Research also shows there is no definitive way for companies to build a culture in the remote-work world. Productivity in remote environments diminishes, and employees who do not work in the same space as their manager proved 5% less likely to feel like their opinions count. And employees who don’t know their coworkers often don’t interact with people beyond their team or have strong ties with them are more likely to resign. This decays two key common culture drivers that predict positive business outcomes: collaboration and purpose.
Given that, what do we need to do to advance DEI in a remote world?
Driving inclusion remotely
Despite the pros and cons, managers must use existing knowledge to advance the DEI cause. Here are five ways that they can do that:
- Establish norms and obtain buy-ins — Begin by creating shared expectations. For example, should cameras be on at all times? Remote workers may see this as an invasion of privacy. More prosaically, how should employees participate in meetings? Just speak-up, as they would in-person, or “raise their hand” virtually and wait to be acknowledged? Clarifying conduct expectations and allowing employees to have input on how these norms are formed and implemented creates trust and psychological safety, which can foster inclusion.
- Leverage technology — Use technology to promote engagement, interaction, and collaboration. Recordings, live transcriptions, and chats ensure knowledge transfer to those who could not attend events synchronously, or for whom English is not the primary language. Tools such as whiteboards, feedback polls, shared workspaces, and breakout rooms can help create meaningful shared experiences by building a culture of mutual accountability and allowing for input from those who may hesitate or have challenges sharing in larger groups (e.g., introverts or differently-abled people).
- Create meaningful rituals — Rituals are the lifeblood of organizational culture. Because remote workers cannot have impromptu chats in the hall or lunchroom, it is critical that leaders create “mini-rituals”, such as those related to onboarding, celebrating success, information exchange, and social events. Discovering the rituals most meaningful to your remote team will take some trial-and-error, but the payoff is well worth the effort.
- Build mentorship & allyship networks — Remote work can eliminate geographic barriers constraining in-person mentorship and allyship. Remote meetings and conversations allow mentors and allies to meet away from public scrutiny as they build delicate relationships. Leaders can foster DEI by acknowledging their own and the organization’s potential foibles, giving voice to these efforts, devoting appropriate resources, and leading by example.
- Connect in-person — Finally, meet face-to-face. Even in a primarily remote workplace, in-person meetings are critical. Do not fall into “one-size-fits-all” trap — be clear about why people are meeting, and strategic about attendees and location. Consider hosting multiple, smaller face-to-face meetings in lieu of larger events, and informal gatherings rather than formal affairs.
Remote work might enhance or inhibit DEI initiatives — the jury is still out, and it might be a decade in deliberation. Still, while there are moral aspects of DEI, it is also good for business. A diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture is a win-win for all stakeholders, and achieving this joint gain in a remote work-world will be a primary challenge over the next decade.
This article was prepared for Thomson Reuters’ Forum Magazine by James R. Bailey Hochberg Professor of Leadership Development at George Washington University; Katina Sawyer Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Arizona in the Eller College of Management; Ravi S. Ramani Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management in the Graves School of Business and Management at Morgan State University; and Ella Martin senior at Montclair Kimberly Academy and a rising freshman at Wake Forest University