Vaccinations and low transmission rates mean many businesses can return to “normal.” This means many employees who have spent nearly the last eighteen months working from home are being invited back to their offices. But do they want to return and, if they don’t, should their employers require them to return?
While each business has to decide whether allowing employees to continue working from home will meet the needs of the organization, providing this option can help further diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Working from home provides employees with flexibility, allowing employers to attract a greater pool of candidates. Even companies in more homogenous or sparsely populated parts of the country can attract employee candidates from every national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, or other background. Those new employees can bring a more diverse pool of perspectives to your organization, enhancing everything from team collaboration on routine projects to strategic planning. And this increased diversity of outlook is not only good for DEI efforts, but also good for business.
Flexibility doesn’t only benefit the far-flung candidate, however. Sometimes candidates in your own neighborhood are unable to physically come in to work on a regular basis. These potential hires might have disabilities that prevent easy mobility or they might have significant familial responsibilities. The option of remote work allows such candidates a chance to join your organization, and in turn enhances the diversity of life experience and perspective that informs your business.
BIPOC and Latinx employees often feel the need to code switch while at work. Code-switching occurs when a person adjusts their style of speech, appearance, behavior, or expression to optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, equity, or employment opportunities. Self-policing in this way requires significant mental and emotional energy. In the privacy of their homes, however, employees can focus on their jobs instead of making labor-intensive, efforts to fit into the culture of your organization, even if these are subconscious.
Allowing employees to work from home and focus on their work instead of on the numerous in-the-moment adjustments necessary to feel comfortable socializing at work can increase productivity. Further, remote work can make some diverse employees feel that their needs are being better met by their employer, which is setting them up for success.
Subtle attacks or macroaggressions can add up over time and create a work environment that feels unsafe for women, BIPOC, Asian, Latinx, LGBTQ, or disabled employees. Many such employees express feeling less anxiety and stress working from home than in an environment where good-intentioned questions or offensive offhand remarks can culminate in a culture that feels consistently uncomfortable, or even unsafe. At a minimum, employers should seek feedback from employees prior to demanding an immediate return to the office. Creating an inclusive working environment requires input from multiple stakeholders.
A word of caution: While offering the option to work from home can provide flexibility, focus, and safety, helping businesses to expand and support their DEI efforts, employers should be sure to implement these changes with care. Working from home can lead to feelings of isolation and a fear of missing out on opportunities. It can also easily result in employers favoring those who work in-office, effectively harming your company’s DEI efforts. Managers should find ways to include work-from-home employees in workplace social events, staff meetings, and other work activities. Representation always matters, even when employees are not in the office. If you decide to offer work from home, ensure the voices of your diverse employees are still fully integrated into your workplace culture and decision-making.
Working from home can be complicated in terms of onboarding, forming a workplace culture, and relationship-building, and it is not necessarily the right option for every employee, team, or organization. Employers have to be mindful that no one working arrangement can please everyone, but having options as we move forward will allow us all to be more innovative about how we design, manage, and adapt our working arrangements.