Over the past few months, companies across industries have been making headlines by mandating returns to the office. Especially notable have been organizations in the tech space. While I’m sure these companies have good reasons, the reality is that this shift away from remote work further exacerbates tech’s diversity and staffing problems.
According to a report released earlier this year by Built In, 30% of tech companies stated diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are not at all vital to the overall success of their company. The same report found that over half of employees feel their company either needs to improve on DEI or is making a very poor effort in it.
Tech companies thrive on moving fast and adapting to the changes and needs of the industry, yet they are so hesitant to keep remote work and all the benefits it brought with it — namely the inclusion of many underrepresented groups. Women, people of color, differently abled, and neurodiverse individuals have thrived in remote work environments and have seen possibilities they didn’t know existed before.
Let’s start with the flexibility remote work provides — especially for caretakers, which more often than not are women. According to Harvard economist Claudia Goldin’s book “Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey toward Equity”, the need to put in time at the office on a mandated schedule is one of the biggest challenges facing women in the workplace. This is often perpetuated in subtle ways — those who work long hours and weekends are seen as team players whereas the mom who has to leave at 4 to pick up her kids from daycare might be seen as not prioritizing the company. Remote work made striking the right balance substantially better — allowing caretakers to meet the needs of their personal lives while also performing their jobs efficiently and effectively.
Along with removing judgment and stigma around standard working hours, remote work also reduced workplace microaggressions. For all underrepresented groups, microaggressions had too often become a normal part of meetings and office interactions. But as part of the embrace of remote and hybrid work during the pandemic, many have been able to limit these interactions, if not eliminate them completely.
Not only can the loss of microaggressions enable a sense of psychological safety, but so can the very nature of not being in an office environment. In a physical workplace, managers and colleagues too often focus on the person’s differences or deficits, rather than recognizing their strengths. For example, an employee with ADHD may seem hyper or have trouble concentrating on one thing — but they’re also amazing problem solvers. Putting them in an environment where they can work in their own way, without workplace distractions, allows those problem-solving capabilities to shine through. This extends beyond neurological differences, too. Consider someone who isn’t able to physically drive a vehicle to work or who needs to take breaks throughout the day to receive medication but has the capacity to do a job and do it well. Remote work has given that group the ability to live a healthy, well-balanced life without sacrificing their careers.
The greater sense of psychological well-being that remote work options provide means that employees are going to do better work — which contributes to a better product and company overall. Diverse people means diverse ideas. Imagine a group of like-minded individuals from the same geographic and social-economic level creating products or services to be sold around the world. People with different life experiences bring different perspectives and thus boost creativity. If you want to sell to a diverse customer base, you need a diverse staff.
Oh, and by the way, you’re not going to solve any staffing shortages by getting rid of remote work.
Despite the economic downturn, tech jobs are still expected to grow. According to a report from Janco Associates, the IT job market will add 174,000 jobs this year alone — varying by sector. In cybersecurity, for example, there are an estimated 700,000 unfilled cybersecurity positions across the US. Remote work enables businesses to tap into a whole new talent pool. Underrepresented groups, empowered by remote work, are the key to solving the tech talent shortage. Period.
What’s more — do you think the tech or cybersecurity talent you currently have wants to work for a company that went back on its word? People often choose a job based on the company’s values and actions. It’s obvious that tech workers have options — putting you at a clear disadvantage when it comes to not only recruiting but retaining talent. Values matter. Diversity matters.
Without remote and hybrid work options that offer people the psychological safety, flexibility, and even playing field we all deserve, tech runs the risk of once again becoming a clubhouse that turns inward to homogeneity instead of embracing change, and the brilliant ideas and innovations that come from having diverse talent from all walks of life.