Remote work may exacerbate diversity and inclusion problems for companies

May 24, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

As more companies shift to remote work following the coronavirus pandemic, management may have to work harder to ensure that all employees are included and have equal opportunity. It’s a problem most companies grapple with even in a normal in-person office environment, but the issue can quickly intensify with distance.

“If you are a member of a group that’s marginalized or underrepresented, it’s already hard to be visible,” said Evelyn Carter, director at diversity and inclusion consulting firm Paradigm. “It’s especially exacerbated right now.”

Carter joined Paradigm CEO Joelle Emerson and Laszlo Bock, a former Google human resources executive who currently runs the HR software company Humu, for a virtual panel earlier this week. The three discussed how the new working environment may affect diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and offered suggestions for companies to even the playing field, along with advice for marginalized employees, who may have to take extra steps to stay visible while working from home.

The panel comes as many companies, both big and small, have shifted to more remote work, helping employees stay safe during the outbreak. The pandemic is also expected to fundamentally change how companies view remote work in the future. Tech giants including Facebook, Twitter, and Square already have rolled out plans to allow some of their employees to work from home permanently.  

But having an isolated workforce also creates a set of new challenges including developing and maintaining a company culture, building relationships, and making sure all employees are equally heard. Carter said distance reinforces people’s tendency to favor people who are similar to them. It also eliminates the opportunity for spontaneous conversations between different people who may be nearby or passing through. 

A remote workforce ideally creates a new opportunity for companies to intentionally spread opportunities across the board. But Paradigm’s leaders said they’re not seeing many businesses take advantage of that. “We could be leveraging this moment in time to close those gaps,” Emerson said. “But instead, most people are taking shortcuts and exacerbating it.”

The panel offered some suggestions: Managers should be cognizant of who’s getting assignments and aim to even the distribution. They also should think about being more flexible with schedules, as many people are parents or caregivers who now have additional responsibilities during the workday, Carter added.

Employers also need to be aware that not all employees have the same resources at home, Carter said. Some may struggle with stable Wi-Fi connections or have less access to high-quality screens or software, tools that may be essential to doing their jobs from home.

But above all, employers need to have empathy and understanding during a time that may be especially difficult for marginalized groups, the panelists agreed. Anti-Asian racism is running rampant following the outbreak, and the virus is taking an especially big toll on black and Latino communities.

“Think about ways to be intentional, and evaluate the impact of it,” Carter said.

Meanwhile, marginalized employees can also use this opportunity to make sure they’re on the company’s radar, regardless of what their employers do. That means being proactive like regularly checking in, asking for feedback, and raising questions.

“What I worry about is a lot of times during economic downturns or times of challenge, people from marginalized groups get left behind,” Emerson said. “I don’t think this is the time to sit out.”

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