Advancing diversity and inclusion in an age of hybrid work
Organisations and their leaders need to take steps to ensure diversity and inclusion efforts are supported as hybrid and remote working become the norm
Many organisations have championed diversity and inclusion causes in recent years. For such organisations, having board and senior leadership support for diversity and inclusion is critical to success. However, the plates of board and senior leadership teams have well and truly been full over the past two-plus years to help navigate their organisations through the COVID-related turbulence that has subsequently transformed many workplaces.
One of the lasting changes of this turbulence has been the shift to remote and hybrid working arrangements, which has been a two-edged sword for many organisations – and their diversity and inclusion efforts. Women have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and women also lost jobs at a faster rate than men did through the pandemic.
Working mothers with young children were also impacted, according to US research, which found that among college graduates with young children women want to work from home full-time almost 50 per cent more than men. While there are benefits to increased flexibility, this also meant less facetime with managers and this could potentially affect the promotion prospects of working women.
The pros of remote and hybrid working for diversity and inclusion
The shift to hybrid and remote working has several implications for organisations' diversity and inclusion efforts, according to Tammy Allen, a Distinguished University Professor at the University of South Florida and a visiting scholar at UNSW Business School.
“First, if we think about employee recruitment, we know that organisations that offer remote work are more attractive to applicants,” said Prof. Allen, who cited a LinkedIn study which found that jobs that were remote received over two times the number of applications than jobs that were onsite. Other LinkedIn research has also found women are more likely to apply for remote jobs: a point confirmed by Prof. Allen, who explained they are more attractive to not only women but persons of colour.
“Remote work has enabled women to engage in caregiving while also maintaining some participation in the workforce. And we can also think of the implications for retention … And in fact, many employees say that they would quit if their employer forced them to return to the workplace,” she said. “For persons of colour, working remotely means that there are fewer opportunities for them to experience microaggressions in the workplace. And so, they actually feel greater belonging, and more of a sense of inclusion, while working remotely."
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Prof. Allen, who has conducted research into work, diversity and inclusion (among other topics) for more than 20 years, also noted that many employees – especially women – say they would leave an organisation if they were forced to come back onsite full-time. “So, for employers, offering remote work is a great way to manage talent and attract and retain a diverse workforce,” she said.
The cons of remote and hybrid working for diversity and inclusion
The shift to remote and hybrid working arrangements has certainly not been without its challenges for both employers and employees. Many organisations are still struggling to find the optimal balance of flexibility and productivity while retaining a sense of a cohesive organisational culture.
One of the more significant challenges associated with working remotely is “boundary management”, according to Prof. Allen. Traditionally, an office allows individuals to separate their work and non-work roles. However, when the workplace becomes the home, she said there is an integration of roles and boundaries become more blurred, which can make it very difficult for employees to disconnect.
Read more: Are hybrid work models good for diversity and inclusion? Not necessarily
“Being able to disconnect and detach from work is very important to our health and wellbeing. We know that remote workers have had to develop some unique strategies to try and keep that separation between work and home,” said Prof. Allen, who gave the example of what is referred to as “the fake commute”. So when the working day is done, they close the computer and take a walk around the block to help physically and mentally detach from work. Or workers might keep a space in their home that is specially dedicated for work, and only use this space for work time.
A second challenge relates to the work-from-home environment, and Prof. Allen explained offices are designed very intentionally to help employees with both ergonomics and productivity. “But we know that people working from home might be working from their sofas or from kitchen tables. So there’s the danger of musculoskeletal disorders developing because employees aren’t working in ergonomically sound workstations,” she said.
There are also important implications for diversity, Prof. Allen added: “what we find is that, in the battle for the work-from-home space, it’s often women that are losing. So it’s women who are more likely to have to find corners or even work from closets.” As such, she said it is essential for employers to help employees working from home to set up sound stations, and perhaps provide them with an allowance to purchase furniture and equipment to maintain their health, safety and wellbeing.
Improving career and promotion prospects with remote and hybrid working
As highlighted earlier, one of the common drawbacks (particularly for women) with remote and hybrid working is potentially being disadvantaged when it comes to career prospects and potential promotions.
There is evidence that remote workers may be more likely to be passed over for promotions, according to Prof. Allen, who said there are specific steps employees can take to ensure they remain promotable and not have their careers derailed.
“It’s important to keep your supervisor and co-workers aware of your accomplishments. And oftentimes women and persons of colour are a little more reluctant to tout their accomplishments, but it’s important to maintain communication and not let ‘out of sight’ become ‘out of mind’,” she explained.
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How leaders and managers can improve diversity with remote and hybrid working
Leaders at every level of an organisation play a critical role in the success of diversity and inclusion outcomes, and Prof. Allen said they should take a number of steps to ensure these outcomes are not adversely affected by remote and hybrid working arrangements.
One is to focus on impact, rather than face time, while the second suggestion Prof. Allen offers is to make sure all employees are receiving mentoring – regardless of their work location. It is also important to make sure employees are supported with setting up productive work-from-home stations and arrangements.
“Finally, it’s important to give employees the flexibility not only in terms of location but also scheduling, to be supportive when employees do have disruptions such as having to take care of children,” said Prof. Allen.