Sonata Notes: Is Remote Work Good for Diversity?

Diverse virtual team holds video conference using Zoom or Microsoft Teams

Ask any CEO or HR director today about their priorities, and they’re bound to list remote work and diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) among the top five.  And while these might seem like unrelated issues, multiple studies have found a surprising correlation between DE&I and virtual work.  For instance:  

  • 80% of women surveyed by FlexJobs said remote work was a critical job benefit, compared to 69% of men.  Women were also more likely to prefer working remotely full-time, citing improved work/life balance and less pressure to dress up for the office every day.

  • A survey by Future Forum reported a 64% reduction in stress levels for Black knowledge workers when working remotely, citing less pressure to “fit in” socially. And only 3% of Black workers wanted to return to the office full-time, compared to 21% of white workers (members of other underrepresented groups in a UK survey reported similar preferences, saying remote work avoids much of the cultural misunderstanding and casual racism they experience on-site.)

  • Women also seem more comfortable managing virtual teams than men, with 80% of female managers expressing trust and confidence in their remote workers compared to 64% of their male peers.

So, does this mean we are headed for a more diverse, inclusive and virtual post-pandemic workplace?  

Well… not necessarily.

While remote work has been shown to mitigate certain biases and barriers for underrepresented groups, virtual workers face barriers and biases of their own.  

78% of remote workers surveyed said they have faced resentment from colleagues who work on site.  And a joint study by the Universities of California and North Carolina found managers are more than twice as likely to give positive evaluations to people they see in person (particularly in “extracurricular” contexts such as the break room or parking lot) as someone they interact with remotely, regardless of actual performance.  And since women and members of underrepresented groups are more likely to work remotely, this “proximity bias” can amplify identity-related biases.

Yet, despite the downsides, 47% of non-white workers and 48% of women said they would quit a job that did not offer remote work, compared to just 39% of white men.  This implies that organizations who fail to ensure equitable treatment and opportunities for remote workers will gradually become less diverse.  

So, how can organizations better support DE&I in their remote work policies?  A few strategies include:

  • Call out “proximity bias” in DE&I training, and how it intersects with identity bias.  Providing specific training on virtual team management can also help sensitize managers to the dangers of proximity bias in how they treat different team members. 

  • Cultivate “perceived proximity” between virtual and on-site workers.  Studies have shown that frequent online interaction can have many of the same positive effects as in-person interaction.  To that end, managers should also be trained on how to promote regular communication among hybrid team members.  

  • Have hybrid team managers balance on-site and remote time.  Requiring hybrid team managers to work remotely part of the week can help ensure more equitable access and create perceived proximity / empathy with remote team members.  Similarly, if remote team members work in the office 2 days per week, have managers alternate in-office days each week, to ensure people on different rotations have equitable access.  

  • Focus on results over traits in performance evaluations.  Proximity bias is more extreme when evaluating subjective traits like “commitment” and “leadership potential” versus objective performance benchmarks.  Make sure that all aspects of evaluations have clearly defined, objective criteria for what constitutes a “7” as opposed to a “6” for “Leadership” (or, better yet, do away with trait-based evaluations and adopt outcomes-based evaluations for the same qualities). 

And these are just a few suggestions.  If you take time to study the research and best practices around both issues, you will find that what’s good for virtual work is usually good for diversity, and vice versa.   


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