Developing and growing robust diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives has been a major focus for firms across the US — and for many, the murder of George Floyd by police in the spring of 2020 and the global racial reckoning that followed only deepened a desire for real progress in their workplaces. But as the pandemic has continued and new variants have pushed back plans for many workplaces to resume in-person openings, HR departments have started to ask themselves: Is the way we’re working hindering progress on our DEIB goals?
How Remote and Hybrid Workplaces Affect DEIB Initiatives
Experts say the fear isn’t unfounded.
According to Robin Rosenberg, PhD, psychologist and CEO and creator of the Live in Their World program, which uses VR to teach empathy and respectful interaction, virtual and hybrid work environments can easily replicate all the ways that in-person workplaces fail to treat all employees equitably.
“For DEI initiatives, many of the ways that inequity and a lack of inclusion arise unfortunately have corresponding remote versions, such as being dismissive via Zoom, email, or chat and playing favorites, [as well as] the way tasks are assigned and how performance is evaluated,” said Rosenberg.
In some cases, Rosenberg added, a remote environment can even make these issues worse. “Some of these [issues] are exacerbated with remote work because they can be less noticeable to the offender or to bystanders,” she said. “Moreover, it’s harder to address situations that come up because, with remote work, creating an opportunity to talk is a formal procedure — scheduling an appointment — rather than being able to go up to the person and ask to speak privately.”
Furthermore, added Ash Beckham, activist, inclusive leadership expert, and author of Step Up: How to Live With Courage and Become an Everyday Leader, the pandemic has weighed heaviest on the very employees DEIB measures are designed to support.
“Women and employees of color have disproportionately assumed additional support roles at home, at work, and in the community,” Beckham pointed out. “Not only do these additional responsibilities require more work flexibility, but as the environment returns to more in-person interaction, those required to continue working remotely due to external obligations miss out on the face-to-face interactions and connections that pave the way for promotion and advancement.”
Celeste Headlee, journalist, speaker, and author of Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism ― and How to Do It, summed it up succinctly: “Working through DEIB issues can be more difficult when people are remote or hybrid,” she said.
One inescapable difficulty: Zoom overload.
“Education and grassroots networking are two areas that are more challenging in a virtual environment,” said Beckham. “As anyone reading this article knows, screen fatigue is real. Staring at your monitor for one more meeting can feel painful.” And that goes double for anything that doesn’t feel urgent (for example, a DEIB or continuing education seminar). “When that meeting is an optional training that feels outside of your scope of work, it is easy to find excuses to skip it,” she said.
Another major problem, Beckham noted, is diminished opportunities to make genuine connections with colleagues when some or all workers are remote.
“Personal connections drive a culture of belonging, and those conversations happen most authentically in person — no one sticks around a Zoom meeting to ask what you did last weekend,” she said.
Not only do employees who are working virtually miss out on the connections in-person staff members can make organically, they often find themselves at a disadvantage if they’re calling into a meeting or gathering held partially in-person.
“We have a lot of really good research showing that when most of [the] team members are in a room and one person is remote, that one person is going to be forgotten and they won’t be heard — and they will feel like they aren’t being heard,” Headlee cautioned.
Making Hybrid an Advantage
The good news, experts said, is that while there are plenty of ways diversity and equity progress can be set back by a lack of in-person work and interaction, there are also many ways that a remote setting can be an advantage. It all depends, they said, on what the firm’s specific DEIB goals are — and on how willing a company is to be both intentional and creative in bringing those goals to life.
If breaking down barriers between siloed employees and increasing contact and relationships across different groups of workers is a critical goal for your firm’s DEIB progress, Headlee said, leveraging the schedule-driven nature of remote and hybrid work can actually help.
“[What’s] good about remote work is that a lot of the interactions have to be planned,” Headlee noted. “You can ask people to work together on small tasks and collaborate, and because it has to be planned, it has to be intentional. You can actually create these interactions between colleagues who, if they had their choice, might not work alongside one another. You can be a little more of an architect creating a culture [at] your workplace.”
Similarly, Beckham said, HR departments can take advantage of the increased privacy remote employees often enjoy to get employees involved in initiatives they might otherwise have felt too bashful to tackle in front of a crowd of colleagues, and to give them the perceived freedom to avail themselves of a resource they might not have felt comfortable doing with so many eyes on them.
“Access can be more discreet,” said Beckham. “If an employee is hesitant to participate in employee resource group (ERG) or business resource group (BRG) meetings or DEIB initiatives, the virtual environment can provide cover from perceived judgment for participation.”
In fact, companies actively working on building a more equitable working environment might find that the perceived safety of being at home — and not in the presence of others — can be a major boon for companies hoping to encourage employee reflection and honest feedback.
“The early research shows us people of color may feel more comfortable and safe when they are not in the workplace — most people of color in the United States are working in a place in which they are a minority and where very often the leadership of whatever company they are working for is majority white,” Headlee shared. “So it actually can work to your advantage if a person of color wants to address a DEIB initiative. You can make that work if you at least partially have this conversation while they are in their home and feel a little more comfortable.”
An all or partially virtual workforce can also make it more feasible for firms that are looking to incorporate trainings and education into their efforts to do so.
“The ability to record live content for convenient access, as well as decreasing financial barriers to entry, can increase the number of employees that access DEIB trainings,” said Beckham. “Asking for funding for a trip to headquarters for a DEIB event is far more challenging than participating in a DEIB summit virtually.”
By the same token, companies that are considering making fully or partially remote work permanent at their organization may find that they are able to make progress in a critical area on many DEIB plans: Hiring a more diverse staff.
“It all starts with DEIB hiring,” said Tina Hawk, SVP of Human Resources at GoodHire, an employment background check platform. More flexible work options open doors for candidates of more backgrounds, and give employers a chance to draw from a racially, geographically, and economically broader pool with candidates across the age, gender, and ability spectrum. And that pays off not just for DEIB goals but for companies as a whole.
“Remote and hybrid work has further enabled companies to embrace DEIB by hiring people from different socioeconomic, geographic, abilities, and cultural backgrounds and with different perspectives, which can be challenging to accomplish when recruiting is restricted to a specific locale that not everyone can afford to live near,” said Michael V. Nguyen, PhD, an educational psychologist and lecturer at the University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. And that includes candidates with valuable skillsets who may have been excluded from office jobs for other reasons.
“It provides people who may have a hard time finding steady employment at an onsite job, like those with disabilities or caregivers who need a flexible schedule, the opportunity to follow their career goals without having to worry about commuting back and forth to an office [or] the flexibility to get to healthcare appointments when needed,” Nguyen continued.
“This is not a chore; it's a privilege,” Hawk said. “Promoting opportunities to more diverse talent pools embeds your company with a wider, more profound perspective.”
While the roadblocks inherent in virtual and hybrid workplaces are real, the options for overcoming them are, too. And for companies that are serious about making lasting changes to create more diverse and equitable workplaces, the advantages of our current circumstances can’t be ignored. In fact, Beckham said she thinks many of the workplace adaptations brought about by the pandemic have led to permanent changes in how companies think about their initiatives — for the better.
“This increase in participation by simplifying access is something that will remain with us in a post-COVID world — by removing barriers to entry and evaluating practices with a truly inclusive lens to consider who is left behind, organizations can begin to set the foundation for a culture rooted in belonging,” she said.
What’s critical, Hawk agreed, is that companies take both the challenge and the opportunity seriously. “With proper care taken by management, diversity and inclusion can still be championed in a hybrid setting,” she said. “It simply takes a concerted effort from management to ensure that underserved individuals have their needs met and their voices heard.”