Why remote options need to be part of your DEIB strategy

woman working remotely at a computer

So you’ve finally gotten your leadership team on board with a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) strategy. You’ve hired a consultant, a DEIB manager, or you’ve added it to the (already overflowing) plate of your HR/talent team. 

You’re learning about initiatives like those we adhere to at Baltimore Tracks, a coalition of tech firms in Baltimore working hard to resolve the diversity and equity issues in the tech community. Are you committed to the following? 

  1. Collecting employee data through a DEI audit/demographic survey
  2. Publishing data and setting milestones for improvement
  3. Sharing your best practices with other organizations
  4. Sharing qualified, diverse candidates with other tech firms
  5. Removing degree requirements (outside of those necessary for certain roles)
  6. Paying your interns

Great! Sounds like you’re off to a good start. 

So what’s a healthy next step? Take a good, hard look at your company policies with a DEIB expert and try to see where your well-intentioned standards might not be fair to everyone on your team. Case in point: in-person, hybrid, and remote work.

Obviously, some roles require physical work that prevents remote options — we’re not talking about those. But many roles are in-person solely because it’s always been done that way, the leadership team/CEO prefers it or believes it’s necessary, or there’s fear of employees being less productive away from the office. 

According to Karl Moore, professor of strategy and organization at McGill University (via Kate Rodriguez at the Economist), only about 25-30% of CEOs are introverts. When the head of the company and the leadership team (who are frequently extroverted, well-off, straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied men or women who lack a diverse perspective) create a business office strategy, work environments will naturally reflect their own desires and comfort levels, often in the name of team cohesion, communication, and collaboration. At its heart, these decisions come from a good place, but they generally aren’t made with any consideration of diversity, equity, or inclusion. 

While aligning your company with a strong DEIB strategy, it’s important to take into consideration the needs of the entire team, as well as the future employees you wish to attract. 

Have you had open, honest conversations with your team members to know what they’re up against on a daily basis? Is the work environment set up to provide the best space for extroversion AND introversion? Have you considered social, racial, or cultural differences? Psychological safety? Women returning to work after childbirth (e.g. those who need to pump and store breastmilk)? Elder or child caregivers? Immunocompromised individuals (or those with household members who are)? How about disabilities like ADHD, mobility issues, hearing/sight impairments, autism spectrum/neurodiversity, or light and sound sensitivity? 

As a business leader, you are a community builder. What can you do to build a better, stronger community? How can you show your team that you trust them to do their best work in the environment that suits them? How can you set them up for success?  

You can start by surveying employees anonymously via a tool like Typeform or Google Form Creator to get an overview of the company as a whole. Review the data, then speak with each team member individually to learn more about their unique situation and see how you can provide a space that suits their needs and life circumstances. 

What about people who don’t work well in a remote-first environment? Certain team members — especially employees who are early in their career, lack clarity around their job responsibilities, lack a quiet office space at home, or simply thrive within in-person environments should have the ability to work in-person if that’s a better fit for them. 

Consider offering coworking options. In-person team meeting days. Smaller offices with natural light and noise buffers. Open areas for collaboration. Offices with doors that close to allow for better focus and phone calls without distraction. Find solutions that provide in-person environments for those who want them without the expense of a long-term, large office lease. 

Think about the preference of your clients as well, but keep in mind that most clients would much prefer a happier, healthier, motivated team that’s focused on their needs than one that’s forced to be in-person in spite of the challenges it creates for them. Life has changed so much since the beginning of the pandemic, and most people understand that business has had to adapt and evolve. 

Online collaboration tools like Google Workspace, Miro, Slack, Teams, Otter, Monday, Zoom, Basecamp, Nectar, Brief, Nifty… (the list goes on and on) can help create a cohesive team, regardless of location. There’s no simple blueprint of the best tools for your company, so utilize an agile-like approach to testing out new solutions. 

Determine your budget and requirements, analyze the options, see which projects allow for integration with your other systems, try the new tool out yourself, provide it to your team, get their feedback, modify based on input, and iterate as needed until you find the best collaboration stack for your team. 

The last two years have shown us that there are many ways to operate in varied team locations, some solutions more successful than others. If you find that your team isn’t performing as effectively in such an environment, determine what’s causing this. It’s likely a Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) — a leadership, structure, or capability issue that can be solved once you determine the root cause(s). (The recent Better.com performance-driven layoffs appear to be a good example of FAE.) 

If you’re not strategizing for the needs of everyone on your team, you’re likely missing out on creating a healthy, well rounded, happier community, while also pushing away the unique voices that can help to shape your most innovative ideas. 

An in-person work environment can increase the stress of your team members who encounter microaggressions in the workplace, so being more in control of the environment can be a healthy benefit to remote work for many people. Don’t forget though that there is inherent risk to not having the entire team in-person, so do what you can to mitigate that risk through solid planning, communication, weekly check-ins, and strategy sessions that involve everyone, regardless of location. 

It’s critical that your remote workers aren’t removed from key decisions, albeit unintentionally, through proximity bias or spontaneous in-person meetings. Pay attention to where there might be bias in your management style. Are you taking your in-person team out to lunch? If so, ensure that you’re also doing remote lunches with your WFH team via Uber Eats or Grubhub. Are you finding your in-person team can easily walk into your office to chat? If so, offer open office hours on Zoom where you’re available to anyone consistently each week. 

By offering in-person and remote options, you’re expanding the potential candidate pool for future positions, and opening up opportunities to improve the diversity of your team. There’s an enormous amount of competition for great candidates these days, so utilize everything you can to make your work environment positive, motivating, and worth sticking around for. 

Open up communication with your team and start working from a thoughtful, holistic approach to people management. It will make for a far more collaborative, cohesive, and DEIB-friendly environment than you ever could have imagined.