Return To Office Diversity| ItSoftNews

On a recent call with the bank’s wealthy clients, JPMorgan’s CEO Jamie Dimon declared that office-centric work will help improve diversity, and thus all JPMorgan staff need to return to the office. If Dimon is right, it’s an important argument for office-centric work. After all, extensive research shows that improving diversity boosts both decision-making and financial performance 

Yet does office-centric work really improve diversity? Meta Platforms, parent company of Facebook and Instagram, decided to offer permanent fully-remote work options to its current employees and new job applicants as part of adapting to the post-pandemic environment. If Dimon is right, this shift should have undermined Meta’s diversity.  

In fact, Meta found the opposite to be true. According to Meta’s chief diversity officer Maxine Williams, the candidates who accepted job offers for remote positions were “substantially more likely” to come from diverse communities: Black, Hispanic, Alaskan Native, Native American, people with disabilities, veterans, and women. In a statement to Black Enterprise, Sandra Altiné, Meta’s VP of Workforce Diversity and Inclusion, said, “Embracing remote work and being distributed-first has allowed Meta to become a more diverse company.” 

The numbers bear out these claims. In 2019, so before the pandemic, Meta committed to a five-year goal of doubling the number of Black and Hispanic workers in the U.S. and the number of women in its global workforce. Frankly speaking, many large companies have made bold promises, but underperform on the execution of them. 

However, thanks to remote work, Meta’s 2022 Diversity Report shows that it attained and even outperformed the five-year goals it made in 2019, two years ahead of its original plans. It substantially improved on other diversity metrics to which it didn’t commit in 2019. For instance, people with disabilities increased from 4.7% to 6.2% of Meta’s employees.  

Is Meta special in some way? Not at all.  

Do you think underrepresented groups, such as African Americans, want more or less time in the office compared to white people? A Future Forum survey on this topic among knowledge workers who can work fully remotely found that 21% of all white knowledge workers wanted a return to full-time in-office work.  

What would be your guess as to how many Black knowledge workers wanted a return to full-time in-office work? The answer: Only 3% of all Black knowledge workers would want to return to full-time work in the office. That’s a huge difference. 

Another survey from Future Forum found that 38% of Black men and 33% of Black women wanted a fully flexible schedule. The comparable numbers for white men is 26% and white women is 25%.  

Plenty of other surveys show similar findings. For example, the Society for Human Resource Management last September found that half of all Black office workers wanted to work from home permanently, while only 39% of white workers did so. 

What explains this enormous disparity? Unfortunately, Black professionals are still subject to discrimination and microaggressions in the office. They are less vulnerable to such issues when they work remotely much or all of the time.

In addition, Black professionals have to expend more effort to fit into the dominant cultural modality in the workplace, which is determined by traditional white culture. They have to code-switch and adjust their style of speech, appearance, and behavior. That code-switching takes energy that could be spent better doing actual productive work. 

Similar findings apply to other underrepresented groups. That includes not only ethnic and racial minorities or people with disabilities, but also women. 

Since this data is widely available, why did Dimon make this claim about how returning to the office would improve diversity? He might have fallen for the belief bias, a mental blindspot that causes us to evaluate truth claims based on how much we want to believe them, rather than the data. Another problem might be the confirmation bias, our mind’s tendency to reject information that goes against our beliefs.

Ensure remote work doesn’t penalize workers

While I believe Dimon is absolutely wrong about diversity and remote work, that doesn’t mean it’s a panacea for underrepresented groups. Research shows that Black workers deal with bullying on video calls and harassment via chat and email, as well as other online settings. Also, surveys demonstrate that men frequently interrupt or ignore women in virtual meetings, even more so than at in-person ones. 

How do we address such problems? Organizations need to train staff—especially managers—to conduct remote and hybrid meetings in a way that’s sensitive to diversity concerns. This will help teams build skills in avoiding such problems and especially help underrepresented groups feel supported as organizations build a more collaborative atmosphere. 

For example, when bullying and interruptions happen in virtual meetings, managers need to learn how to address it in the moment. They can say something like, “Please let them complete their point before asking questions. Use the raised-hand function, so that we can come back to your suggestion afterward.” 

Similarly, managers also need to check with underrepresented staff about bullying in private team member communications, making it clear that any such behavior should be brought to their attention. In both cases, the manager needs to be trained to notice systematic patterns of problematic behavior, talk to the offender, explain why it’s inappropriate, and request that they change their behaviors.

Stopping online harassment of underrepresented employees is not enough. One of the biggest challenges in remote work is decreasing connections among workers. 

For instance, research indicates that the number of connections made by new hires in the workplace decreased by 17% during the pandemic, compared to the period before the pandemic. Since the successful accomplishment of company goals often requires cross-functional collaboration, such a loss of connections is worrisome. Fortunately, scholars found that connecting junior staff working remotely to senior staff during the pandemic worked very effectively to expand junior staffers’ networks. 

Research shows that one of the primary reasons underrepresented groups fail to advance stems from the lack of connections to senior staff in the form of informal mentoring and sponsorship. This requires the creation of a formal hybrid and remote mentoring program, with a special focus on underrepresented staff.  

As an example, the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute is implementing a formal mentoring program that will provide special support to underrepresented groups. That means providing underrepresented staff with two mentors, one from the same underrepresented group and one representing the majority population. Doing so offers the underrepresented mentee a diverse network of connections and experiences to draw on among both underrepresented and majority staff. It provides mentees with the implicit knowledge and relationships they will need to advance, while the fact that each mentee has two mentors lightens the load on each mentor and makes the workload manageable. To help uplift the importance of the mentoring program, mentoring is included as part of the performance evaluation of each mentor. 

Tackle proximity bias

Such mentoring also helps address proximity bias, which refers to the intuitive presentism felt by many bosses who reward workers who show up at the office over those who choose remote work. For example, consider a Society for Human Resource Management survey of those who supervise remote workers. Forty-two percent of respondents report they occasionally forgot remote workers when assigning tasks. A survey from the Stanford Graduate School of Business discovered that remote workers were 15% more productive on average than in-office peers, but they received promotions less frequently than in-office staff. No wonder a Future Forum  survey of over 10,000 knowledge workers and their leaders shows that the top concern for executives about hybrid and remote work is proximity bias.  

To help ensure an equitable environment for underrepresented groups, such proximity bias needs to be addressed not only via mentoring, but also by deliberate actions from bosses. The best way to do so involves ensuring all team members—fully remote, hybrid, and in the office—get quality time with their team leader each week in a one-on-one performance evaluation check-in. 

Direct reports agree on three to five weekly or biweekly performance goals with their supervisor. Then, 72 hours before their check-in meeting, they send a brief report to their boss of a couple of paragraphs of how they did on these goals, what challenges they faced and how they overcame them, a quantitative self-evaluation, and proposed goals for next week. Twenty-four hours before the meeting, the supervisor responds in a paragraph-long response with their initial impressions of the report. 

At the one-on-one, the supervisor coaches their direct report on how to solve challenges better, agrees or revises their goals for next time, and affirms or revises the performance evaluation. That performance evaluation gets fed into a constant performance and promotion review system, which can replace or complement a more thorough annual evaluation. 

This type of brief and frequent performance evaluation meeting mitigates concerns about face time, since all get at least some personalized attention from their team leader. But more importantly, it addresses underlying concerns about career mobility by giving all staff a clear indication of where they stand at all times. After all, it’s hard to tell how much any employee should worry about not being able to chat by the watercooler with their boss. Knowing exactly where they stand is the key concern for employees, and they can take proactive action if they see their standing suffer. 

Such best practices help integrate employees into a work culture fit for the future of work, while fostering good relationships with managers.  Research shows supervisor-supervisee relationships are the most critical ones for employee morale, engagement, and retention, so important in this time of the Great Resignation to cultivate and support underrepresented employees. 

Always be listening

Creating a diverse, inclusive, and equitable culture in remote and hybrid settings also requires recognizing problems and taking action to remedy them. An important step involves conducting internal surveys to determine those issues. 

The best surveys will ask underrepresented staff about their experiences with the problems outlined above and other diversity-related challenges. They’ll also request feedback about what the staff believe might be the most effective ways of solving these problems. Then, they’ll integrate the best solutions into plans to address the situation. 

You have probably heard the famous phrase, “what gets measured gets managed.” Once organizations know the nature and extent of the problems, they can work to change them systematically, rather than only in one-off, ad-hoc situations. Measure the problem, create a plan to fix it, then measure how well you are improving it. 

Following this path and adopting best practices for diversity in hybrid and remote work, organizations can avoid Dimon’s misstep and instead, outperform their diversity goals and improve their decision-making and financial performance. 

Gleb Tsipursky, PhD, is the CEO of the future of work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of  Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.

A version of this article appeared on Yahoo and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

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