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Remote work can boost diversity yet undermine equity for employees of color

July 31, 2022
Diversity & Inclusion

Facebook doubled the number of women as well as Black and Latino employees since 2019, the company, now called Meta, said this week in its annual diversity report.

Maxine Williams, Meta’s Chief Diversity Officer, partly attributes the increase in people of color to the flexibility of hybrid and remote work options.

This makes sense. Being able to work from anywhere does not require diverse employees to relocate themselves and their families to places in which they will be severely underrepresented. The pandemic created a solution to this problem for Meta and other companies.

The reported increases — from 6.3% to 6.7% Latino and 3.9% to 4.9% Black — in the diversity of Facebook employees between 2020 and 2022 are not sizable enough to confirm that work location flexibility is a significant, sustainable solution to the tech industry’s longstanding diversity problem. And then there is the question of whether this increased diversity is equitably distributed across all levels, or if it is most heavily concentrated in entry-level and low-compensated roles. Nevertheless, working from home seems to be making some demographic difference at Meta.

Eliminating stressful commutes, avoiding $6 per-gallon gas prices, being able to work in comfy pajama bottoms, and having more flexibility to spend time with kids and pets are some well-known reasons why many professionals, regardless of their race, have no interest in returning to noisy cubicles and too hot/too cold office spaces. Also, they and their supervisors now have more than two years of evidence to show that working from home neither negatively affects their productivity nor their performance.

In addition to these somewhat universal rationales, employees of color say remote work provides much-appreciated shelter from the racist stereotypes, microaggressions, racial tensions, and overt racism that many of them experienced in on-site workplace settings prior to the pandemic. For some, finding a new job that affords remote work is a more appealing alternative to returning to places in which they previously encountered tremendous racial stress.

A few years ago, I conducted a workplace racial climate assessment for a company. This entailed facilitating several racially homogeneous focus groups with white employees and their racially diverse colleagues.

In interviews with Black professionals, women repeatedly talked about white co-workers touching their hair. While some were at least polite enough to ask before violating these Black women, audacious others occasionally did so without seeking consent.

A few weeks after the interviews, the CEO closed the headquarters for a daylong all-employee DEI retreat with me — presenting and discussing findings of the workplace climate assessment was the centerpiece of our time together.

I asked all white attendees to raise their hands. They did. I then instructed them to keep their hands raised if anyone had ever touched their hair at work. All hands went down. I then invited Black women to do the same. All but one hand remained raised (that one woman said she had only been at the company a short while).

I have not been back since the pandemic began, but I am guessing that Black women who work there have not been eager to return to what one of them referred to as “a petting zoo.” This is just one of numerous racialized experiences from which Black women and other employees of color are protected as they work from home.

Location flexibility has been good for diversity at Facebook and other organizations. Notwithstanding, leaders have a responsibility to do something about the racism and racial stress that too many employees of color experience in on-site work settings.

If left unaddressed, many loyal colleagues who make offices diverse may opt to switch to remote work. Also noteworthy is that remote work does not fully protect professionals of color from microaggressions and other racially harmful experiences.

Asking the one Indigenous team member to speak on behalf of all Indigenous persons, for example, can just as easily occur in a virtual setting as it often does in on-site office meetings. Inclusion requires more data about how diverse employees, regardless of where their work is performed, experience the racial climate, and then using those findings to fix racist and otherwise problematic cultures, policies, structures, and systems.

There is at least one other important set of cautions about relying too heavily on remote workers of color to increase diversity numbers. Leaders must be mindful about providing opportunities for these professionals to lead, be seen, and showcase their advancement potential. While this is important for employees across all races, it seems especially essential for Asian American, Black, Indigenous, Latino, Pacific Islander, and multiracial people.

In my interviews with them over the past two decades, these employees have consistently talked about how their managers invest more into their less-qualified, quantifiably less-accomplished white counterparts. Reportedly, white co-workers are also afforded more leadership audition opportunities and get tapped more often for promotions to higher-paying roles. These inequities will surely be exacerbated if disproportionately higher numbers of white employees work in the office and people of color work mostly from home.

Cultivating meaningful, professionally profitable relationships likely occurs more easily for those with whom leaders spend face-to-face time in offices. It seems plausible that executives and managers will promote employees whose offices they can drop into to ideate and solve problems, those whom they see thinking and leading in real time.

Rotation and leadership acceleration programs have to be intentionally inclusive of remote workers. Also, leaders must deliberately facilitate opportunities for colleagues at their level and above to be exposed to talented people of color whom they will never bump into in the office or see make in-person presentations.

Having clear promotion policies and processes that are inclusive of employees who work from home is imperative. Furthermore, written HR plans and DEI strategy documents ought to specify how racial equity will be ensured for remote workers; how people leaders will be held accountable for demonstrating fairness in promotion processes; and proactive steps the business can take to strategically poise diverse, extraordinarily talented in-office and off-site colleagues for career ascension.

Remote work at Facebook and elsewhere could set up employees of color to contribute to the company’s demographic bottom line, but diverse professionals will ultimately remain underrepresented in mid-level, senior, and executive roles if virtual-only interactions deny them equitable opportunities to display their advancement readiness.

By Shaun Harper


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