The last few years we have been reinventing how and where we work. The pandemic was a large part of the acceleration towards remote work and more virtual meetings. Because the pandemic was sudden and unplanned, our response was reactionary. We’ve spent the time since then trying to retrofit our corporate goals and expectations around a new normal. But most of the conversation around increased remote work is focused on the risks and challenges, not the solutions it brings. This is especially true when we look solely through traditional productivity lenses. What about recruitment and retention goals and the opportunities of remote work? What about how to build and maintain a corporate culture that spans a globalised workforce? Remote work certainly brings some obstacles and questions to how we keep a business running. But it also may give us new ways of resolving problems inherent to in-office work.
Remote work brings challenges. But it may also provide solutions the office cannot.
Remote work may help organisations with efforts to recruit and retain more diverse workforces. During the ‘Great Resignation’ when so many workers relocated, people began moving to where they wanted to live, not where the office required them to be. In some cases, this meant companies lost a local pool of talent – many large cities saw a reduction in available workers. But, with remote work, companies were no longer bound to those within commuting distance. For leadership teams to adapt to new recruitment and retention opportunities, they must have a strategy that leverages remote work dynamics. Building a pipeline of next-gen talent requires envisioning a variety of work arrangements to attract them.
See remote work not as the problem, but as part of the solution. In addition, specific groups of workers important to inclusion may be easier to attract due to remote work opportunities. Those with disabilities are seeing increased hiring due to remote work, for example. Women at leadership levels continue to leave roles without part remote duties, and therefore organisations should prioritise those sorts of arrangements all the way to the C-suite level. While there has been a lot of discussion about how to bring workers back to the office, leadership teams should think more flexibly than a one-size-fits-all strategy. While being in the office has many benefits, and is regaining popularity with groups like Gen Z, remote work will continue to be a priority for others, and DEI needs might be better served with remote (full or partly) opportunities already envisioned.
Removing the office from work may also remove poor behaviour. While remote work can offer new opportunities like increased access to different groups of workers, it might also be effective at eliminating some of the disadvantages of in-office work arrangements. To date, we have focused mostly on logistics: no commute, more flexibility, less overhead. But there has been less attention paid to what remote work removes: the historical interpersonal exchanges of the office. For example, there is some evidence that remote work opportunities have improved microaggressions, which disproportionately happen to people of colour, women, and other traditionally marginalised groups. This is likely due in part because of the reduced amount of casual time colleagues spend with each other. Microaggressions like asking a person of colour ‘where are you really from?,’ for example, are less likely to occur in a formal meeting, where personal comments are minimised. No one wants to suggest working around bad behaviour by shutting down in-person meetings. However, it’s important to recognise the ways that certain team members may benefit from remote work, but not articulate to a manager or colleague. The advantages of avoiding this kind of harassment and discomfort is discussed less openly than benefits such as reduced commutes or flexibility. But these benefits can be what helps leaders keep diverse team members, if they’re aware of these dynamics.
Leaders should build policies that incorporate remote work as part of a DEI strategy.
Human resources teams should help assess all corporate priorities, including DEI goals and how to reach different groups of workers through a variety of work arrangements. Understanding how remote work aligns with DEI practices requires the same thoughtful analysis as other recruitment and retention plans. A McKinsey article highlighted the importance of updating strategies, and recording progress: ‘Few companies currently track [diversity and inclusion] outcomes across work arrangements. For example, only 30 percent have tracked the impact of their return-to-office policies on key DEI outcomes.’ The in-depth analysis of how remote work impacts productivity and customer service are important but incomplete parts of the equation. Employee loyalty and satisfaction is increasingly tied to DEI success and there is more work to be done to understand how to leverage remote opportunities.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.