As COVID-19 spurs a mass shift to remote work, people are worried that the “new normal” could jeopardize diversity and inclusion in companies. Underrepresented individuals already struggle with a sense of belonging and visibility in the office—surely spreading teams miles apart will lead to further marginalization?
Actually, remote work is associated with better diversity and inclusion standards: it makes it easier for people with caregiving responsibilities to also further their careers. It creates a more comfortable, less discriminatory environment for people with disabilities. Remote work also bypasses location bias, which is when potential employees outside of big tech cities are excluded from the hiring process, disproportionately affecting talent from underrepresented backgrounds.
But there is also a considerable cultural element. If handled appropriately, the remote revolution could have knock-on effects that create radically healthier work environments across industries. The shift can truly empower employees to be themselves, and bring that self to the table—leading to significantly stronger teams and businesses overall.
Here’s why remote work can boost employees’ sense of belonging and (perhaps ironically) make your team more unified than ever before.
Employee psychological safety is protected
More than one in four employees have experienced discrimination because of their appearance, according to studies. Legislation has played a noticeable role in fueling such discrimination. In the United States, only California and New York have laws banning discrimination based on natural hairstyles—primarily those worn by people of color. Meanwhile, the European Court of Justice has ruled that prohibiting “political, philosophical or religious sign[s]” such as headscarves in the workplace, does not equal discrimination.
Speaking to the BBC, one Muslim woman noted how when she wears a hijab at work, she “see[s] disinterest in [my colleagues] faces. I am always friendly but they never bother with me. They talk amongst themselves as though I am invisible.”
In an on-site work environment, the pressure of peers’ appearance is all around, all the time—a situation made worse by spoken and unspoken dress codes. But remote work alleviates any appearance-related stress because it doesn’t usually require employees to be visible for the full duration of their day. The remote environment is less intimidating, and relationships less judgemental. Rather than worry about how they look physically, employees can comfortably be themselves, focus on their job, and bring aspects of their personal selves into their work.
At the same time, the move to remote work will free up resources for HR teams that no longer have to manage physical workplaces. HR teams are instrumental in breaking old company habits that obstruct a sense of belonging among employees. So, spare resources can be directed to diversity and inclusion, and to making the larger conversation about well-being more accessible and relevant to everyone.
Staff won’t feel pressure to conform
Office social dynamics can be intense. We’ve all been there, stressing about what dress or tie to wear to make a good first impression, imagining what people are gossipping about in the coffee room and wondering if you’re going to get invited for drinks after work. Offices can make people feel like they don’t belong unless they change something about their person.
But remote work dismantles the subtle structures that block employees from being themselves. Video calls may actually limit emotional and physical micro-behaviors that contribute to an exclusive social culture. Hierarchies are deconstructed as everyone shares an identically sized box on screen. And the physical imbalances of the office—people standing vs. sitting in conference rooms, corner offices, and cliquey hot desks—are erased.
Employees also have more freedom to decide how they socialize. They can set up virtual events tailored to include people who usually feel excluded from standard in-house events involving late nights, drinking, or expensive commutes. Those excluded are often people with families and caregiving responsibilities. At the same time, not being physically present means people will probably feel less peer pressure into following others’ routines.
It’s important that employers aim to have a real understanding of what environments, schedules, communication methods, and company perks really have a positive impact on employee well-being. Dina Bayasanova, founder of nonbiased recruitment and upskilling platform Pitch.me, recommends sending staff regular engagement surveys that ask about their mental wellness, work-life balance, and stress, and what can be improved.
Doing so will allow employers to hone in on solutions that match the realities of their employees’ new and unexpected living situations, such as providing better home office equipment and offering “remote stipends.”
If the remote transition is handled with inclusion in mind, new hires will come into a workplace where employees are encouraged to be who they are. This will lead to positive reinforcement, as more diverse recruits are inspired to join your team.
Employee confidence will flourish
Inclusion is not just about giving everyone a seat at the table, it’s also about them being an active part of the conversation. A sense of belonging gives people the liberty to express their ambitions and apply them in the workplace, regardless of their background.
As remote work removes many on-site work tensions, it can foster a general willingness to share, listen, and engage in more open dialogue.
More self-confident employees will always enrich your organization. As staff grow more comfortable, they will feel more committed to the business and its mission. Having more honest, representative conversations will provide the necessary feedback to continue improving D&I, and they will also help the company generate more informed and resilient strategies to overcome COVID-19 and future crises. Employees who feel safe to innovate often bring new angles and high-level suggestions that better the company as a whole.
Essentially, inclusion releases a company from its echo chamber and generates valuable out-of-the-box solutions. Not to mention, inclusive workplaces are twice as likely to meet or exceed their financial goals.
Psychologists state that “having a sense of belonging . . . is a human need, just like the need for food and shelter.” As the COVID-19 crisis forces everyone to recalibrate what really matters, the necessity of belonging has come to light. If business leaders can harness remote work to reduce social pressure and toxic constructs, they will lay a new foundation for healthier, happier employees who are comfortable—and eager—to be themselves.