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Remote work is the next diversity frontier

Organizations that don’t actively support remote work are limiting their capacity to engage with top talent.

Remote work is the next diversity frontier
[Photo: FlamingoImages/iStock]

I was at a conference, talking about the gig economy and the future of work. There were around 500 people in the audience. I asked, “How many of you have a diversity program?” Every hand in the room shot up.

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“How many of you have an active remote work policy?” About 80% of the hands went down.

Every company wants to promote diversity and inclusion. In every industry, firms are creating executive-level chief diversity officer roles, and those people are tasked with running diversity and inclusion programs. Yet, those same companies do not yet understand the importance of making remote work a key part of their diversity and inclusion strategy.

Location as an element of diversity is not yet part of the conversation. It really needs to be.

Too much diversity policy is based on a desire for compliance, not on a genuine wish to restructure the way teams function. Did anyone ever do anything truly worthwhile because they wanted to avoid a lawsuit? The system gets in the way of what it’s supposed to accomplish because the underlying imperative is to take risk out of the equation.

A lot of people came up to me after that speech and told me they’d never even considered the link between diversity and remote work. I said to them what I’m saying to you: The way we look at remote work is limiting companies’ capacity to engage with top talent. Organizations that don’t actively support remote work are unknowingly falling victim to location bias.

How location bias goes undiagnosed

The biggest reason why companies fail to actively engage with remote workers is that they don’t understand the power of diversity and the positive impact it can have on business outcomes. Instead, they fall prey to location bias.

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Many of the most successful and desirable employers are based in expensive cities on the coasts. Not everyone wants to move to those cities, nor can many people afford to. More and more, smart, dedicated people are choosing to stay close to their families. Some have sick or elderly relatives to care for. Others simply prefer the towns and cities where they grew up.

In 2017, 14 million Americans spent more than an hour traveling to work. It’s safe to say that figure is only increasing. Those who have a choice may feel that they can enjoy a better quality of life in smaller cities without insane commutes. These people are automatically excluded from the hiring process of many organizations in busy metro areas, where they could thrive and deliver great value.

Most companies have rigid hiring practices and recruiting teams. They may demand several in-person interviews, keep candidates waiting months for a decision, insist on a probation period, and expect long hours from new hires. Without intending to, these conditions exclude people who can’t easily travel to and from the interview location. They exclude people who cannot wait two months to discover whether they have a job. They exclude people for whom moving across the country to take up a probationary position is too much of a risk. They exclude people who have family and community commitments, and who cannot devote themselves entirely to their jobs.

Don’t overlook diversity of location

Imagine you’re a single mom, living in Akron, Ohio. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are in your chosen profession, your chances of getting hired by any firm outside your immediate locale are slim to none, especially if you’re unwilling to uproot your family and potentially move thousands of miles from your community. You may rely on the people around you to provide emotional and practical support while you work, so relocating alone would be a deeply isolating move.

Many companies want to employ more women and people of color. They may also be open to collaborating with remote workers. But they don’t really understand the unique needs and priorities of those groups. They feed a more diverse range of people into their existing hiring process and it spits out a slightly different mix at the other end. That process doesn’t catch people who don’t fit neatly into existing hiring demographics.

It’s because they’re still interpreting cultural fit to mean hiring the kind of people they’d like to go for a beer with after work. Yet cultural fit is more fundamental. It’s about whether candidates truly share the values of an organization, for example by respecting the diverse perspectives that come with welcoming remote work.

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I live in Seattle. It’s a crazy expensive area. It’s taken me 20 years of working in big tech to afford to live here. I’m a product of privilege. I’m white. I come from a healthy, loving family. I’ve had amazing mentors. What chance does someone from a disadvantaged neighborhood and a family at risk have of emulating that trajectory, even if they have better skills than I do?

This is not to say that companies should ignore qualifications and expertise. Quite the reverse. They should seek out qualifications and expertise, even when the people best placed to deliver fall outside their standard catchment. At the moment, there is too much bureaucracy and friction in the system, limiting the capacity of companies to reach outside their primary locations.

Remote work works

Supporting remote work is far more than a luxury or a box-ticking exercise. My experience of working with on-demand freelancers has opened my eyes to a different way to engage talent. They can be an essential part of a team and make the projects they work on significantly better. A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies, reported in the Harvard Business Review, found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean.

When I started to see the promise of remote work, I was running a predominantly white, content team living within a 30-mile radius of our campus. I took my massive budget and gave the green light to everyone—from the most seasoned content creator to the most junior—to engage freelancers on their projects. We soon began to work with amazing women in Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina, along with freelancers from countries including South Africa, Australia, the Philippines, and India. As the range of people we worked with broadened, the quality of our work improved. We also saw an improved capacity to scale, all without increasing our budget. The atmosphere shifted to one of radical empowerment.

Because we were working on a project basis, we also engaged with far more voices. Even those who make it through the hiring gauntlet are only the tip of the iceberg. For every person who makes it to the inside, a dozen talented voices are shut out.
Instead of hiring one diverse candidate, we could engage 15 or 20 freelancers. Over the course of a year, we brought in hundreds of people. Real diversity.

Retrain yourself to embrace remote work

The problem right now is that companies like the idea of diversity but they’re trying to fit diversity into a pre-existing structure. To benefit from remote work, you need to rethink the structure of your workplace.

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When I engage with freelancers and bring together a wider team, I gain knowledge. My life experience is limited to my gender, my race, the neighborhood I grew up in, and the schools I attended, as well as the companies and industries where I’ve worked. What looks “right” to me is fixed and rigid.

Adding in the perspectives of people from around the world teaches me how to be productive on a whole new level. These people often see situations differently and come up with unique solutions to problems. It makes the market research better, designs products better, and forces me to improve my management skills and communication. Without this constant flow of new information and ideas, I would soon become obsolete.

Now that it’s become my normal, I’m allergic to the old way. I just get things done, working with the people who are best placed to help me do that. I work with, collaborate with, and rely on my network of expert freelancers to do amazing things — things that would not be possible with out this new mindset.

Bottom line: Location bias is a critical and, as yet, poorly understood factor standing in the way of successful diversity policies. Companies that truly want to support diversity and inclusion must actively support remote work. Yes, it will take some practice. Yes, it will require a shift of mindset. But remote work, by its very nature, democratizes opportunity, allowing people who fall outside traditional categories to succeed.


Paul Estes is the author of Gig Mindset: Reclaim Your Time, Reinvent Your Career, and Ride the Next Wave of Disruption

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