In a matter of weeks, remote working has become a norm thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic which has virtually brought the world to a grinding halt. Organizations have had to transform their working styles from mandating employees to work from home, to finding and onboarding tech solutions that ensure security, agility and work continuity, building necessary IT and other infrastructure, procuring devices and putting in place remote work protocols in a matter of days.
Remote work and flexi work options beyond virus containment
Remote work, flexi work options, online instruction and other such accommodations have been on the global list of demands of Diversity and Inclusion experts, activists (disability activists, gender rights activists and so on) and several employee groups for many years.
A 2011 ILO research suggests that out of India’s 21.9 million persons with disabilities nearly 73% are not in paid employment. Out of this, women and people from socially and culturally disadvantaged groups are further marginalized. According to an ILO 2009 white paper, the country is losing around 5-7% of its GDP by excluding persons with disabilities. To address this exclusion, NITI Aayog, the central government think-tank, has developed Vision 2030 with the overarching principle of ‘leaving no one behind’. The document seeks to achieve inclusion of persons with disabilities through inter-ministerial cooperation and public-private partnerships, among other measures.
NASSCOM data suggests that the representation of persons with disability in the IT-BPM industry is less than 1%. Persons with conditions such as cerebral palsy, spinal muscular atrophy or other conditions that restricts their mobility may find the travel to be an excruciating and stressful experience.
In many cases, persons with disabilities believe they are more productive at home than at office as their homes are designed with their specific needs in mind, making it more congenial for working. Even when offices are accessible and have reasonable modifications made, customizations may not be feasible. Additionally, while working from home, persons with disabilities will be able to slip in physiotherapist or doctor appointments without disturbing their schedule or work.
The Social Development Foundation of ASSOCHAM conducted a study in 2015 which suggests that 25% of women did not return to the workforce after the birth of their first child owing to guilt, inability to balance their personal and professional commitments, fear of discrimination, lack of flexibility and a lack of growth opportunities.
According to Equiv.in data, the total cost of social exclusion in India is a mammoth figure of USD 800 billion! Diversity and inclusion are areas that we still need to make serious progress in and soon. Several Studies have highlighted the benefits of diverse workforces such as productivity gains and innovation. A 2017 McKinsey Report called ‘Delivering through Diversity’ states that organizations that embrace gender diversity at the executive level enjoy 21% more profitability than the industry average, 33% greater profitability by embracing ethnic diversity at the executive team level and 43% stronger profitability by embracing greater ethnic diversity at the board level.
When organizations provide remote work and flexi work options, unexplored/ underexplored talent pools such as women, persons with disabilities, career returnees, ethnic minorities, etc. opens up to them. Very few organizations have formal work from home opportunities and policies so far. For instance, Verizon and Accenture provide flexi-working options including remote work. There are other organization where is no Remote Work policy, but employees are allowed to work from home on a need basis. With the necessary infrastructure and protocols now in place for remote work, will this become an opportunity for organizations to make deeper inroads into diversity and inclusion?
Remote work and flexi timings may increase diversity but will not make your workplace inclusive
Remote work, flexi timings and investment on IT infrastructure for remote work are not magic potions that will make the workplace diverse by design or more inclusive. Diversity and inclusion have multi-faceted and layered challenges which need more than the acceptance of remote work.
Inequitable practices and biases may remain even when we achieved the diversity numbers through remote working and flexi-work options. However, remote work and flexi-work options will be a crucial starting point for improving the diversity quotient.
How to make deeper inroads into D&I with remote work as a starting point?
Workplace culture: Inclusivity and equity must be embedded in the organization’s culture. The workplace culture needs to reflect how committed the organization is towards making its diverse workforce feel at ease and have a sense of belonging. Even while working remotely, conscious and unconscious biases could be reflected, stereotypes perpetuated and certain groups of employees feeling excluded. In short, a change in mindset in terms of the organization’s structure and overall workplace culture are necessary to make more out of remote working.
Diverse and empathetic leadership: Only such a leadership will be effective in building trust and accountability, supporting and motivating employees and creating collaborative and positive environments where everyone can thrive, regardless of whether they are working from home or the office. Having diversity at the board level is critical as it brings different perspectives to the table and enables the organization to drive its D&I outcomes.
Engaging employees: A Gallup Study states that full-time remote working can lead to greater employee disconnect and higher attrition rates as a sense of isolation and exclusion from the company culture may creep in. In the long run, organizations must look at providing mobility options – projects of varying lengths for remote workers to work on site, experience the work environment and be aligned with the organizational goals. In the short run, organizations must look at novel ways to engage every employee working from home. For instance, subtitles must be provided in virtual meetings where there are team members with hearing/ speech impairment or if they speak a different language.
Considering how crucial diversity and inclusion are to business outcomes, organizations must purposefully and consistently take steps to incorporate remote working into their workplace culture and foster a more diverse and inclusive workforce.