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Why Flexible Work Is Essential to Your DEI Strategy

This article originally published on Harvard Business Review.

by Sheela Subramanian and Ella F. Washington


A new survey shows that 81% of U.S. Black knowledge workers prefer a hybrid blend of in-office and remote work going forward. To make good on recent public commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, organizations must invest in initiatives that actively support their employees of color, and they can start by making pandemic-era flexibility a permanent offering for all. But this must be done carefully, with CEO leadership. Managers must be trained to lead distributed teams with trust and to evaluate employees based on real results, not presenteeism.

In celebration of Black History Month this year, we’ve seen corporate leaders participate in more public displays of solidarity than ever before, from employee volunteer days and internal company workshops to writing large checks to community organizations and nonprofits. These efforts are no doubt designed to demonstrate the commitments they’ve made to diversity, equity, and inclusion over recent years in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and increasing awareness of the problems of systemic racism.

But when companies tout the accomplishments of Black people or support Black causes while ignoring the inequities holding people of color back in their own organizations, their actions feel like “performative wokeness,” especially if they’re largely abandoned the other 11 months of the year. We’d like to see leaders move beyond transient or surface-level displays of DEI by investing in initiatives that actively support their employees of color. And they can start by making pandemic-era flexibility a permanent offering for all.

Corporate America has long been a monoculture. According to a 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the entire U.S. workforce is 77% white and white workers are significantly more likely to hold managerial positions than Black and Hispanic employees. It’s also worse at the top: 93% of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are white, and two-thirds of C-suite executives are white men.

Pre-pandemic, many companies placed high value on in-person face time in the (predominantly white) office. In this environment, inequity — particularly for people of color — arose from lack of clarity on informal mechanisms of evaluating performance, including relationships and connections stemming from social networking events and company happy hours. These face time expectations in and out of work often caused strain, particularly for Black employees.

However, the rise of flexible work during the pandemic has created an opportunity for employers. Not only does it allow them to hire talent from anywhere, which means access to a more diverse group of candidates, but it also improves the work experience for their existing employees of color, enhancing retention and bolstering the leadership pipeline.

Data from Future Forum shows that the remote revolution has coincided with significant increases in Black knowledge workers’ employee experience scores. Compared to May 2021, Black employees are now reporting greater “sense of belonging” at work (up 24%), higher “value of relationships with coworkers” (up 17%), and a stronger perception of “feeling fairly treated” (up 21%).

What’s behind these gains? With employees spending less time in the physical office, “code switching” — changing one’s behavior, appearance, or speech to fit into the dominant culture — is now less of a job requirement. People can simply do their work, without that extra emotional labor. Given this, it’s easy to see why 81% of U.S. Black knowledge workers say that they prefer a hybrid blend of in-office and remote work going forward.

Unfortunately, those at the top of the hierarchy making decisions about post-pandemic return-to-work plans are typically white, male executives. And it’s perhaps not surprising that they are most likely to say they would prefer to work full-time in a traditional office environment. In fact, the data shows that white employees are already much more likely than employees of color to be doing so — by a margin as great as 17 percentage points.

This raises the risk that, even when companies wisely continue to allow for flexible work, those who opt out of the office at the greatest rates (including women and working parents as well of people of color) may be the most harmed by “proximity bias,” or preferential treatment shown to people who work physically together. Without careful consideration to counter this effect, remote employees could miss out on networking opportunities, stretch assignments, promotions, and career advancement.

Corporate leaders are aware of and worried about these challenges, citing proximity bias as their number one concern about flexible work. But they need to translate this concern into action. DEI initiatives and “future-of-work” planning are inextricably linked and should be a critical priority for any CEO. Flexible work should become the norm in knowledge work companies, and managers must be trained to lead distributed teams with trust and to evaluate employees based on real results, not presenteeism. Equitable work environments in the hybrid and remote world require more transparency from managers on how performance is measured and candor around how face time will be factored in.

We need to jettison the “first in, last to leave” or “quickest to respond to my message” mindset and instead equip managers to reward people for the value they produce. And those at the top must set the example. If executives provide flexible work options but are the first back into the office, others will feel pressure to follow.

Future Forum data shows that 60% of Black employees who are not happy with the amount of flexibility they have at their current jobs will look for a new one in the coming year. So, if companies want to do a better job of retaining diverse talent not just this month but all year, they can’t go back to “business as usual.” It’s time to make work more equitable, and while flexibility is not the panacea, it is a step in the right direction.

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