February 7, 2023

Your Return to the Office Problem Could Become a Diversity Problem

Work from home (WFH) didn’t just boost morale, it elevated productivity and opportunities for diverse workers who struggled in traditional business settings. With diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives still shimmering at the forefront of 2023’s workplace trends, a hardline return to the office policy could sabotage that progress. The good news? Businesses already have the tools, experience, and resources to create a structure that benefits every worker. The outcome, however, will depend on attitude, will, empathy, and a sincere commitment to partnering with talent.

The Disconnect Between Executives and Workers

The tug-of-war between business leaders who want staff back at brick-and-mortar offices and workers who are resisting those orders in favor of continuing to work from home has reached a tepid milestone: 50% of companies have managed to wrangle their wayward talent back their desks, the highest number since the pandemic struck in March 2020. It’s been a real challenge for those executives who want to see their buildings bustling with busy bees. And for their efforts, they’ve managed to achieve only half their goal, since only half of offices on average are currently filled. But they may have bigger problems in store: hobbling diversity and inclusion gains. 

The work from home (WFH) movement that garnered traction over the past two years may have been born from necessity during the pandemic, but its seeds were sown long before. In some ways, the remote working arrangements that companies implemented in response to COVID-19 simply accelerated a trend that had been gaining momentum for years. But now, as powerful CEOs made clear at the World Economic Forum a couple of weeks ago, they want a return — of workers to their offices, of an idyllic bygone normal that no longer exists, and of a familiar stability that also estranges itself from them with each passing day. If anything, the battle between talent who demand working location flexibility and executives who demand an in-office presence illustrates a profound generational and cultural disconnect in 21st century corporate America. 

To understand this disconnect, let’s look at an eye-opening article from CNBC’s Alex Sherman. In it, he wrote: “The Future Forum, developed by workplace-messaging platform Slack, surveyed more than 10,000 workers globally in the summer of 2021 and found an ‘executive-employee disconnect’ with regard to returning to work. Three-quarters of all executives reported they want to work from the office three to five days a week, compared with about one-third of employees. Among executives who have primarily worked completely remotely through the pandemic, 44% said they wanted to come back to the office every day. Just 17% of employees said the same.”

There are several reasons behind the disconnect, according to Brian Elliott, the Future Forum’s executive leader and Slack’s senior vice president. At the core of his assessment is the reality that most executives don’t experience life the same way as their employees. And they’re reverting to an antiquated notion of work to make inferences about what’s important for a company to prosper. These executives are peering through the narrow lens of their perceptions as privileged business leaders, not from the perspectives of the people who do the actual work.

“Executives have a better setup at work,” Elliott said. “They probably have an office with a door. They probably don’t have the same childcare issues as many employees. The risk that we run, as a society, even in a hybrid-work setting, is executives don’t listen to employees looking for flexibility and a real proximity bias sets in among people who are at the office and those that aren’t.”

Elliot, a more empathetic executive, makes a point. Take for example three vocal Wall Street leaders who lamented the WFH revolution at the World Economic Forum: JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, and Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon — all of them white, well-educated, privileged men in their 60s. 

Dimon emphasized his commitment to diversity while simultaneously stating that WFH doesn’t “work for young kids.” I suppose if by “young kids” he means the Millennials and Gen Z talent who now comprise the bulk of the workforce, one could make the case for reverse ageism. At the very least, it has that “you damn kids get off my lawn” vibe. 

Gorman bluntly said that remote working is not an employee’s choice. “They don’t get to choose their compensation, they don’t get to choose their promotion, they don’t get to choose to stay at home five days a week,” he told Bloomberg. But they kinda do, don’t they? 

In 2021, when roughly 47 million people quit their jobs in the Great Resignation, workers showed a willingness to walk away from jobs that weren’t satisfying their needs. In a candidate’s market, they commanded higher earnings, better positions, and WFH options. Companies eager to capture skilled talent even leveraged work from home as a benefit. So, in effect, workers did get to choose — even if that choice involved “firing” their current employer and moving on. This too demonstrates that people like Gorman no longer have their pulse on the attitudes of the modern workforce. 

Then we come to Solomon who described Zoom as an “aberration.” Yet asynchronous communication tools such as Zoom and Slack have proven to be groundbreaking in uniting geographically disparate teams while fostering high performance. Once again, the Wall Street executives seemed to be speaking from their own experience, not the experience of their talent.

Work From Home Simply Works

“The data runs counter to the idea that always being in the office is the best way to foster culture,” Elliott told CNBC. “Using digital tools is really important to building a culture for people who aren’t the average white male executive. Companies that invest in modern tools and in rethinking how they bring people together will do better than those insisting in full-time office work.”

“I’ve heard so many times from executives about the importance of whiteboarding, but that sentiment is always coming from the person who is controlling the pen in that whiteboard session,” Elliott added. “The truth is whiteboarding leads to group think. If you allow people to submit ideas on their own, not in a room with others, studies show you’ll get more creativity.”

Studies also continue to show that WFH is productive. In its research Owl Labs concluded, “Several studies over the past few months show productivity while working remotely from home is better than working in an office setting. On average, those who work from home spend 10 minutes less a day being unproductive, work one more day a week, and are 47% more productive.”

Another project by Stanford, covering 16,000 workers over 9 months, found that working from home increased productivity by 13%. Without commute times and office distractions, workers reported being able to handle more calls, generate greater output, and spend more time focusing on work than when they were required to be at the office. In the same study, workers also cited improved work satisfaction. As an added bonus to business leaders. attrition rates fell by 50%. In the face of data, it’s hard to see the “return to office” hardliners as anything but out of their own comfort zones. But then, of course, we come to the bigger problem they’re also ignoring: WFH bolstered DEIB in significant ways. 

Remote Work Helps Companies Reach Underrepresented Talent

In an interview with the Washington Post, Shane Koller, Ancestry.com’s senior vice president of people and places, said that WFH has helped his organization cultivate more robust DEIB outcomes: “By no longer being limited to the boundaries of our office locations, we can broaden our hiring capabilities to reach more underrepresented talent and provide a level playing field for equitable participation of talent.”

Disabled and Neurodiverse Workers

Marguerite Ward, writing for Business Insider, highlighted the ways in which WFH helps neurodiverse workers succeed.

“An October report by the Economic Innovation Group, a think tank,” Ward explained, “found that individuals with disabilities between the ages 25 to 54 were more likely to be employed in 2022 than before the pandemic. Disability advocates say this is because of the rise in remote-work options, which are a godsend to people who need more control over their working environment.”

"Remote work offers disabled employees the chance to work, but in their own homes, which provides greater flexibility, accessibility, savings in commuting time and expenses, and even privacy that may be needed to address medical issues that cannot be addressed in the workplace," Arlene Kanter, a professor at Syracuse University College of Law, wrote in a Harvard Law School blog post last year.

Advocates for neurodiverse talent say that WFH helps those with autism or mental health disorders to be more productive. For workers with disabilities, where mobility is challenging, WFH removes the logistical complications and allows them to focus exclusively on their work — not commuting to an office and navigating accommodations. 

Rural and Black Workers

One under-reported problem with DEIB is all about location. Terms such as “geographic discrimination” and “environmental racism” go unacknowledged by many DEIB programs. 

Communities that lack open spaces, have fewer healthy food options, and are closer to freeways also display worse health conditions when compared to the general population. And the folks who live in those communities, research has shown, tend to be low-income people of color. Research on race in the workplace suggests that businesses could help close racial gaps by being more strategic about geographic recruiting.

For example, Blacks are a relatively small part of the population in some U.S. cities expected to see the highest job growth over the next decade, such as Seattle, and nearly 60% live in the South, according to a sweeping analysis by researchers at McKinsey & Co.

Workers need to be connected to the opportunities being created and have the skills for the in-demand roles, but jobs are often concentrated in counties that aren’t necessarily accessible to Black workers. Companies considering WFH arrangements can bridge this gap by hiring in areas where there are large concentrations of Black workers who have the relevant skills.

Gender Diversity

“By mid-2022, the labor-force participation rate for college-educated women was 69.6%, making this group the only one whose participation had not fallen from 2019, according to data analyzed by Richard Fry, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center,” Alana Samuels reported in Time. “That plateau was particularly remarkable given that the group’s labor-force participation has been slipping since it peaked in 1999 at 75%, even as women have been graduating from college at a higher rate than men since 2007.”

However, Samuels said, “Evidence suggests that the increase in companies enforcing return-to-office mandates may drive American mothers out of the workforce at a crucial moment.

Last year, I discussed the idea of “proximity bias,” citing research from Nicholas Bloom of Harvard Business Review (HBR) who posited that working remotely may threaten the advancement of DEIB as businesses get physical again.

Bloom referenced findings from a 2014 study he conducted, where his team “randomized 250 volunteers into a group that worked remotely for four days a week and another group that remained in the office full time. We found that WFH employees had a 50% lower rate of promotion after 21 months compared to their office colleagues.”  

This situation created a sort of “WFH promotion penalty,” and managers in the study confided to Bloom that remote teams got passed over because they were “out of touch” with the office. Whether that was true or not, the perception was the reality. 

“Single young men could all choose to come into the office five days a week and rocket up the firm, while employees with young children, particularly women, who choose to WFH for several days each week are held back. This would be both a diversity loss and a legal time bomb for companies,” Bloom wrote.

In terms of gender, though, it’s not just women who suffer. Members of the LGBTQ community continue to face discrimination. Just think of the debate still raging about restroom usage based on gender identity. With WFH, transgender talent no longer need to worry about being chastised for using the restroom that reflects their identity. 

We Can Create an Equitable Balance in Working Locations

Practically speaking, most data indicate that telework has been successful, productive, and even profitable. Industries moved to telework rapidly, with a transition that was deemed fairly easy. What’s not as clear or simple is the plan for returning to office life. Talent who discovered new successes as a result of WFH feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under them, with no solid rationale to justify the shift. So what do we do?

Smarter Hybrid Working Models

The hybrid model of telework may be a complicated initiative to launch, but we believe it can succeed by following some core principles.

  • Position. Some employees need to be physically present to accomplish tasks that can’t be performed at home, like maintaining sensitive files, overseeing onsite equipment, collecting mail, or other duties. The nature of the work and the specific jobs employees perform must factor in.
  • Personality. There are differences in personalities. Some employees thrive while working from home and others are more comfortable commuting to a brick-and-mortar office. Businesses must survey their talent and determine which are most capable, productive, and happy with telework.
  • Tenure. “Consider whether an employee has been newly promoted and needs to be in the office to work closely with his or her supervisor,” SHRM advised, “Also, is the employee someone new to the company who would benefit from being onsite?” Newer employees may benefit from collaborating with seasoned peers and mentors until they are established enough to work independently, with an understanding of the culture and its communication nuances.

More Engaged Management

Managers, even with teleworking employee populations, must be present, foster collaboration, referee debates, engage remote talent, and promote a supportive, inclusive environment. 

Concentrate on the core. Team connection isn’t the result of social events, even in a virtual world. Throughout the pandemic, too many organizations narrowly focused their efforts on culture building by forcing talent to endure video happy hours or other digital events that experts say went over poorly and led to disengagement. Managers must adjust to getting a handle on hybrid WFH: prioritization on productivity, work-life balance, inclusion, team support, collaboration, and maintaining strong, interactive communication between all employees, wherever they are.  

Oversee onboarding. Make sure employee onboarding systems do not rely solely on onboarding buddies and other peer support. Position managers as the first line of support for those who are new to the company.

Listen. Managers will have a heightened role in the hybrid model, and they’ll need to actively listen to their workers in order to gain insights that will help develop best practices processes in a more digital world. They will need to translate those insights into resources, training, and the increased care that employees will require in hybrid or remote arrangements. 

Get involved. Supervisors will need to remain more aware of the conversations taking place between onsite and offsite personnel to ensure that virtual harassment or feelings of alienation are curbed. That could take many forms: auditing conversations, enforcing rules to prevent gatherings that exclude those working remotely, having people buddy up on calls to provide for witnesses, or more. 

Rely on data, not presence. Talent who are teleworking should not incur a “promotion penalty” by default. Their performance and productivity should be measured by data against their peers or established metrics. If the excuse is that WFH folks are out of touch with the office, it’s the manager’s responsibility to be communicative and transparent to help keep them in touch with the office—just as it’s the workers’ responsibility to actively solicit feedback and remain attuned to the office.

Diversity isn’t just about variances in ethnicity, race, gender, national origin, religion, or any other criteria — it’s about embracing and capitalizing on the unique experiences, perspectives, and insights that different individuals offer. Innovation demands diversity of thought and fresh ideas. And in today’s society, that includes looking at working locations and arrangements in new ways. There is no return to normal, only the march forward. To succeed, business leaders must be willing to partner with the talent propelling their prosperity and seeing things from their eyes. 

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

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