3 Ways the Digital Workplace Can Put DEI at Risk (And How to Combat Them)

September 07, 2022
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Checkr Editor

Understand the ways a digital workplace may negatively impact DEI and how employers can mitigate these risks.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) has become integral to the workplace dialogue. As we reflect on lessons learned from remote and hybrid work, we must ensure that new work-from-home policies support and improve DEI programs instead of exacerbating inequities and distracting from efforts to build diverse workplaces.

The exponential growth of remote and hybrid workforces has put DEI efforts into question, forcing companies to redesign processes, policies, and models that may create inequity, and replace them with new principles.

In this blog, we break down three of the ways remote and hybrid work may negatively impact DEI initiatives, and what organizations can do to alleviate issues surrounding inequality in our new world of work.

We cover:

  • Who gets to work remotely
  • The risks of proximity bias in hybrid workplaces
  • Technology disparities and DEI success
  • How to ensure your DEI policy sustains through remote and hybrid work

1. Who can work from home?

The work-from-home model has expanded employer’s power to diversify and the ability of underrepresented groups to seek employment outside of their regional bubble. Despite all this, who can work from home remains an issue.

Higher-wage workers are six times more likely to be able to work from home than low-wage workers. The majority of roles remain in person resulting in less than 30% of workers being able to work from home, and when broken down by race and ethnicity, the gap widens.

According to a survey by the CDC in 2020, 24% of Hispanic workers and 31% of Black workers were able to work remotely, compared to 41% of White workers and 51% of non-Hispanic and other/multiple race workers. By August 2020, the share of Asian workers who teleworked was three times higher than Hispanic or Latino workers working remotely.

This disparity is primarily linked to educational achievement discrepancies, influencing employment trajectories such as pay levels, titles, benefits and positions. Many jobs such as construction, agriculture, transportation, meat processing, protective services, etc., cannot be performed remotely because it is practically impossible to perform the tasks at home.

It's clear that many jobs simply can not be performed at home. However, employers should know that there are major benefits to gain in offering at least some form of flexibility to on-site employees. Flexible scheduling, paid sick leave, and generous time off allowance can foster employee wellbeing and productivity across all industries.

While there are disparities within groups who can work from home based on education and occupation, there are other DEI pitfalls to beware of, even if remote or hybrid work is possible.

2. Proximity bias

Remote and hybrid work models offer many opportunities to reshape and further a company’s DEI, but if not careful, these models can also further or even accelerate inequities.

One issue that may accelerate DEI issues is proximity bias. Proximity bias is when we look more favorably upon individuals we see or speak to more often. This bias often leads to those in the office receiving more mentoring, more promotions, or more frequent raises than those working remotely.

In a recent survey, Future Forum found that executives are chiefly concerned with the potential for inequity between remote and in-office employees (cited by 41% of respondents, up from 33% from the previous quarter). Data shows that underrepresented groups opt for remote work more often than their counterparts, making hybrid equity and proximity bias critical DEI issues to address.

One way to avoid this is to have managers keep track of individuals receiving promotions and special projects. Have senior management or human resources analyze the data and examine the reasons behind the promotion and assignments. Are they disproportionate to those in the office, or are they based on employee performance or other factors? If trends show favoritism to specific groups or those in the office, use that to course correct and get back in line with DEI initiatives.

For more on hybrid equity, find our interview with remote work expert Dr. Alexandra Samuel on her research into equitable hybrid structures.

Proximity bias isn't the only threat to DEI in the digital workplace. Access to technology remains limited, which has the potential to increase exclusion.

3. Inequalities in technology infrastructure

Technology disparities also are causing problems with remote and hybrid model inequities. Internal work-from-home policies and technology requirements can cause unintended discrepancies. These issues relate to broadband infrastructure inequalities present in the U.S. today.

Studies show that 80% of White households have broadband access compared to 71% of Black households and 65% of Hispanic households. As a result, remote work policies could unduly exclude Black, Hispanic and rural workers from entering the innovation sector.

When companies require a particular broadband strength for running VPNs or specific platforms or even need employees to use their personal computers with remote desktops, imbalances can quickly form. To avoid such inequities, companies must be mindful when hiring or moving employees for remote work that additional support may be necessary—providing employees with adequate PCs or hotspots.

It is essential not to put individuals at an immediate disadvantage. Keep track of new technology and ways in which you, as the employer, can improve the work-from-home experience and increase production.

Also, while having employees supply their own devices and pay for broadband may mean cost savings up front, in the long run, it may decrease the employee’s production if the technology is not sufficient for the job at hand, so employers should be careful when looking at immediate cost savings compared to long term production and overall employee equity.

Iteration is key to DEI success in the digital workplace

Like many complex problems, the solutions to enhancing DEI efforts, especially within remote and hybrid work models, are critical. It is paramount that companies, individuals, and teams analyze and challenge existing policies, processes and mindsets. Is the current process working within the organization?

Companies need to track promotion and salary growth data across gender, race, ethnicity, tenure and days in office categories to see if this is an issue. Look at who works hybrid and fully remote, and be sure to integrate remote access to all meetings. Develop continued DEI training and create sections geared specifically toward remote and hybrid teams.

Additionally, companies must remember to have empathy and be flexible. Everyone’s situations are different; while one worker may find comfort in coming into the office a few days a week, that experience could vary from another employee. Productivity has improved in remote work, and we are now in a place where we need to redefine productivity and flexibility to meet the needs of a wide range of workers.

The world we work in is constantly changing, so remember to evaluate, refresh, and repeat.

Find information on the benefits of hybrid and remote work on DEI in our recent blog, 4 Ways Remote and Hybrid Work Champion DEI.

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