You Want Diversity to Thrive? Keep Your Workforce Remote


Jessica NordlanderCOO at Thoughtexchange

Friday, July 31, 2020

Let’s be frank: of all business ideologies, diversity has got to be one of the most praised but the least valued.

Article 4 Minutes
You Want Diversity to Thrive? Keep Your Workforce Remote

Diversity in the workplace presents a classic mismatch between theory and practice. In his book Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed pools a wealth of evidence to show that diversity is the best approach to creating solutions and tackling problems. Syed demonstrates that removing artificial barriers, and drawing on a diverse range of insights, is becoming the ‘principal engine of growth’ in an increasingly complex world. The internet is awash with similar research validating the benefits of diversity in business, making it clear it’s not just a luxury, but an essential ingredient for success. Especially now.

But, even with this wealth of compelling evidence, business practice has been notoriously slow to prioritize the intelligence of the group over the individual. There’s an undoubted attitude deficit.

SHRM reports that 41% of managers claim they’re ‘too busy’ to enact diversity initiatives. Tough habits can usually be forgiven, but it’s a worrying sign when stubborn prejudices can be admitted on such a scale. Even in the world of big tech, inclusion has generally stagnated over the most recent five-year period.

The resistance, it seems, springs from misgivings about putting diversity into practice. Outside the optimistic literature on the subject, the common feeling appears to be as follows: it’s a nice-to-have, an add-on, an admirable sentiment, but it’s beyond the realm of practical business strategy.

The kickstart diversity needs

Seismic events like the one we’re currently living through don’t respect longstanding practices. Neither, for that matter, do they care for established prejudices. With the remote work revolution brought on by Coronavirus, stagnant attitudes to work culture - including diversity - have been put up for serious revision.

Could a global pandemic really be the nudge that diversity needs?

With the move to remote work en masse, Coronavirus has accelerated working culture into an entirely new normal. The office hub is now a fragmented hive mind. Change the environment, change the paradigm. Fundamental concepts – co-operation, creativity, problem-solving – are all being reconfigured in real time.

Instinct says hold the line

Research has shown that hardship causes people to stick to their guns. Stressful situations prompt habitual, unchecked biases to play a greater role. When uncertainty strikes, gut feelings override analytical thinking. 

It’s in our nature to panic in the face of a crisis. It is not, however, in our ultimate interests to do so.

A mass remote working situation brings a great host of new challenges. A virtual set-up requires an entirely different set of workarounds to that of a conventional office. What’s needed, then, is an industrial-sized supply of new ideas.

Where better to source these than a diverse team?

Virtual crisis navigation

Don’t fool yourself: ticking a box by having a diverse head count on its own isn’t enough. True diversity involves actively soliciting and then acting upon the insights of a heterogenous community.

Fortunately, remote working technologies – ranging from video conferencing to instant messaging to mass crowd conversation – can facilitate this almost perfectly. Consider the potential that’s on offer: a remote workplace is isolated and flattened out across many different locations; the old social relationships and hierarchies of the office fall out of place; what is left is a less constrained environment, in which previously disengaged employees can share their thoughts relatively unencumbered.

A remote working environment can be highly conducive to unlocking the advantages of diversity. This isn’t just my experience and opinion. A major peer-reviewed study looking at the intersection between diversity and business tech found that cultural diversity necessitates the effective use of virtual technology, specifically ‘e-mail, teleconferencing combined with e-Meetings, and team rooms.’ Moreover, the authors of the study noted that ‘ICT mitigated the negative impact on intercultural communication and supported the positive impact on decision-making’. In other words, diversity and remote work technology are made for one another.

By having a disseminated workforce, many of the pressures that hinder meaningful diversity and inclusion are simply no longer present. More flexible working environments benefit women and those with disabilities. ‘Location bias’ no longer discriminates against those from disadvantaged areas.

Non-conventional office structures and a movement to virtual communication channels can act to empower a silent, diverse majority to share their perspectives. In this environment, the best, not only the loudest, proposals are given the chance to be heard.

Remote work is the technological equivalent to the spiritual essence of diversity. It prompts alternative viewpoints; it encourages discomfort as a productive force; most importantly, it represents a shift in power. With old office hierarchies out of the way, the bountiful upsides of diversity can truly start to show their colors.

Jessica Nordlander

Jessica Nordlander is a technology executive with an MSc in Applied IT, an XGoogler and was recently awarded The Most Innovative Leader in one of the most innovative countries in the world (her native Sweden).

She is currently COO at one of Canada’s fastest-growing tech companies, enterprise crowdsourcing firm Thoughtexchange.

Prior to this, Jessica led impressive change and growth in multinational companies, as Chief Digital Officer for global travel group STS Education; Head of Business Development at Google and Managing Director in Stockholm, Dubai and Vancouver for SaaS growth wonder Meltwater.

Jessica serves on the board of several tech start-ups and contributes to as a member of the Forbes Technology Council (an invitation-only community for world-class CIOs, CTOs and technology executives).


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