Diversity is one of the most talked-about issues today in the business world, and can have positive results for both employers and employees. Studies have found that companies with more diverse management teams may produce more revenue, while there are obvious benefits to office culture too.
Many organisations have been extremely committed to addressing and improving diversity, hiring dedicated inclusion officers, introducing blind applications, and investing in awareness training. But, interestingly enough, there’s one unexpectedly helpful thing lots of companies did this year without necessarily intending to.
As COVID shook our lives to the core and forced companies to adjust to survive, for many that meant introducing remote working. Suddenly, millions of employees had to close their doors, start working from home, and sometimes restructure their days.
Remote working, of course, has its pros and cons. However, one big positive is its link to a boost in inclusivity. In a study from Clutch, 57% of HR professionals surveyed said their workplaces became more diverse in the last year — many believing this is due to the benefits of remote working.
Disability and chronic illness
If there’s one minority group that has really flourished thanks to this shift, it has to be people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Campaign groups stressed how important remote working is for accessibility even before the pandemic. For many disabled people, commuting to work can be just as taxing as work itself, especially if they have to haul themselves onto public transport.
But it’s not just about the commute — a disabled person’s house is built to accommodate their needs in ways an office probably won’t be. The option to work flexible hours allows for any breaks or medical appointments that may be required, without getting curious looks from colleagues or worrying about causing distractions. And for neurodivergent people, noisy open offices might actually be detrimental to their focus and ability to work. In many ways, the option to work from home is an absolute must when it comes to accessibility.
One other boon of this rise in remote working is the fact that people don’t actually have to live near the office. In many cases, businesses genuinely want to hire good, diverse talent — but it’s just not there. For example, if a business is located in Cornwall, where 98% of residents are white (compared to 45% in London), it’s obviously going to be harder to find employees of other ethnicities.
Remote work opens up a whole new world of fresh recruits from different neighbourhoods, cities, and even countries! This means companies can attract employees from various backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities, whilst allowing them to remain in the communities they feel comfortable in outside of work.
Sexual orientation and gender identity
Another group that benefitted from new working structures is the LGBTQ+ community. A 2018 Human Rights Campaign report found that one-in-five LGBTQ+ workers were told they should dress in a more feminine or masculine manner, compared to only one-in-24 non-LGBTQ+ employees.
This problem is particularly glaring for trans and gender-non-conforming people, for whom even simple tasks like using the bathroom at work can be a source of anxiety. Working from home doesn’t only alleviate those concerns, but also allows space to start hormone therapy without the anxiety of people noticing a change in their voice, or go through gender affirmation surgery without getting invasive questions. It can even reduce concerns of coming out to coworkers, giving LGBTQ+ employees the space they need to get away if it gets too much and helping minimise the fear of bad reactions.
Remote working is the way forward
The truth is, working remotely is extremely positive for diversity on all levels. In fact, it benefits everyone: it can improve productivity and mental health, give employees a sense of personal agency and trust from their employer, and even foster happiness. It’s no wonder that a PwC survey from December 2020 found that 83% of employers deemed the move to remote work successful.
It’s not just employers who believe remote working is a successful shift. A recent study from Slack found that 72% of employees would like to have a hybrid approach of remote and office work. It seems as though both businesses and workers are seeing the shift to remote working as a positive they will allow even when the pandemic is over.
Of course, to create a truly diverse and inclusive workplace, working remotely is not enough. But, combined with speaking to marginalised employees to see what they need and how they will be best supported by the company, it’s a great first step.