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Remote Work Is How Tech Companies Can Increase Diversity

Tech hubs are becoming less diverse as they get more expensive


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Naomi Day

3 years ago | 7 min read

Tech companies embraced the diversity train in a very public manner in 2014, when the release of the first diversity reports set off a wave of calls for change. Arguably, not much has changed in the last five years. The percentages of racial minorities in technical positions have hardly budged. Women see slightly higher increases, but they are still a significant minority. Minority groups face significant challenges around the diversity and inclusion mentality prevalent in the workplace. There is a long way to go before underrepresented employees no longer have to deal with ignorant comments and other challenges associated with being among the first in a homogeneous space.

But one point is missing in nearly every conversation on diversity: the importance of remote work.

Few large tech companies have clearly defined remote work policies. Smaller tech companies are jumping on the train. There are Github repositories listing companies with primarily remote teams and entire websites devoted to the benefits of remote work that include promising lists of companies. But the big tech companies that publicly committed themselves to diversity five years ago have mostly failed to seriously discuss remote work in the context of diversity.

Remote work is essential for any company serious about their diversity initiatives for at least three reasons: geographic diversity, office culture, and productivity needs.

To be fair, remote work is challenging for both employees and employers. It takes time and thought to set up. Establishing an office culture that encourages productive work from remote locations also takes serious thought, especially for companies that weren’t founded on the basis of remote work.

But remote work is essential for any company serious about their diversity initiatives for at least three reasons: geographic diversity, office culture, and productivity needs.

The geographic hubs of tech are becoming less diverse as they get more expensive

The geographic regions with the highest numbers of tech companies are also among the most expensive cities in the country. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that five metropolitan areas accounted for 90% of all U.S. tech job growth between 2005 and 2017 — Boston, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and San Jose, California. An Investopedia report from mid-2019 found that all but one of these areas (Seattle) are among the top 10 most expensive cities in the U.S.

This isn’t a meaningless correlation. With growing numbers of tech companies in certain regions, tech salaries and tech lifestyles drive prices up. Higher yearly salaries lead to rising housing prices, which exacerbate gentrification and neighborhood segregation.

This also leads to a decline in racial and ethnic diversity. Take San Francisco as an example: A report from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015 discussed the difference in demographic maps from 1980 and those from 2015 when the white population is increasing while most others were decreasing. The African American population, in particular, was declining, from 13% in 1970 to 8% in 2015. PolicyLink projected that it would be 5% by 2040. Then in 2018, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the percentage of Black San Franciscans was a mere 5.5%.

Tech companies in the Bay Area and other locations with similar demographic trends are going to have a hard time locating diverse employees and convincing them to move to the area as overall diversity in the region continues to drop. It’s harder to find a sense of community, harder to find good hairstylists, and harder to find Black-centric grocery stores and restaurants when this is the reality. So often, these are significant factors in the choice of whether or not to move. For folks without family in the region, these factors, combined with the high cost of living, are uninspiring.

Hiring remotely avoids the need to relocate, and thus avoids many of these issues. Folks are able to stay in the communities in which they are comfortable and still be active contributors to the teams they join. Happiness found outside of work remains high, something that research shows is of paramount importance to maintaining job satisfaction and high performance. Remote working increases the pool of candidates likely to join a company and decreases the nonwork-related reasons they may turn down a job offer.

It also indicates an awareness on behalf of the company that not all employees have tech-centric lives and might want to maintain the ways they presently structure their time even as they move companies.

Dealing with office culture as a minority is exhausting and can be seriously detrimental to an employee’s overall well-being

For employees who are in the minority, fitting into office culture can often mean compromising parts of the self that are essential to self-identity.

Code-switching, or changing the way one speaks based on who the listeners are and what their relationship is, costs those who do it dearly. It can increase an employee’s sense of dislocation and dysphoria when they have to do it for eight hours a day in an office.

Microaggressions, or actions that reveal an often-unrealized bias against a marginalized group, are common in tech workplaces. The general lack of diversity in tech makes this worse. Often going into an office regularly means dealing with physical microaggressions — for example, co-workers touching a Black person’s hair — that simply don’t happen around other Black people or, more saliently, in one’s own home.

For employees who are in the minority, fitting into office culture can often mean compromising parts of the self that are essential to self-identity.

There are so many small tensions in the workplace that minorities have to deal with when they are physically in the space. While the hostilities or unacknowledged biases that drive these tensions don’t disappear with the introduction of a remote workplace, they can in many ways be mitigated. Giving folks the chance to decide how they are going to answer when they have the blank face of a screen before them allows the expression of emotions that may be considered inappropriate for the workplace. It gives employees more space and comfort to figure out what they need in a moment of difficulty. It also means more interactions will have paper trails, since more interaction will happen online with remote employees, and it is easier to point out negative patterns and change behavior, all without having to control one’s own facial expressions while dealing with difficult office cultures.

Finding creative ways to remotely build cohesive teams that respect one another without forcing any employees, but specifically, minority folks to do excessive in-person work helps employees focus on the work they are doing for the company rather than the work they need to do to protect themselves in the workplace. This will lead to greater productivity and job satisfaction overall.

It’s worth noting, however, that the existence of remote work policies that allow employees to protect themselves in this manner does not excuse companies from paying close attention to the different challenges minority employees will inevitably face in the workplace, remote or in-person.

Robust remote work policies will help folks with a variety of productivity needs to contribute effectively

From standing desks to vertical mice, people have a variety of physical needs to ensure their health, comfort, and productivity. Some people can only work in silence, others only with music. There are many neurodivergent folks for whom open-office plans common in tech companies are untenable, and others who find the white noise of cafes or libraries perfect for getting hours of work done. Folks who are caretakers of any kind often need to maintain flexible schedules to attend to their other responsibilities, preferably without making it the business of the entire office when they are coming and going. Some people simply communicate better over email, Slack, or any other preferred digital manner of conversing.

There is a huge divergence in how different folks envision an ideal workplace. Having a robust remote work policy that sets up clear expectations and deliverables means you’ll automatically be better at respecting your employees’ productivity needs. Those who don’t function well in stereotypical tech office environments will be drawn to your company, resulting in a wider variety of folks in your workforce with different backgrounds, beliefs, ways of looking at challenges, and other differences that will make your company better suited to deliver products catered to the diversity of your users.

It also implicitly tells your employees that you trust them to determine what works best for them to deliver their best results. It grants autonomy and allows folks to live their work and personal lives in the kind of harmony that enables an enjoyable work environment.

Remote work is a decision that changes the way a company functions on a day-to-day basis, but it’s also one that is an unseen and often unspoken component of diversity. After all, what does it say to an employee when a company wants a diversity of background, race, gender, thought, ability, and so on, but expects all these different folks to be productive and happy under the same limited set of constraints?

And for folks who don’t want to work remotely: They don’t have to! Most companies just now implementing remote work policies are unlikely to go fully remote simply because of size. For employees who love the office life, it will still be there! Just with a few modifications to make sure that those who don’t love that office life can also participate to the fullest extent.

This article was originally published on Medium by Naomi Day.

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