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You want diversity, inclusion in tech? Embrace remote work

Last Updated on by Segun Ayo

Technology giants are pledging to hire more Black workers and people of color to address inequality, but for actions to become more than words remote work has to be a big part of inclusion efforts.

2020 will go down as the convergence of two trends that could finally move the needle on racial diversity in tech: Remote work and a movement to address racism. These trends are intertwined.

Companies are working to diversify their labor base and address inequality amid racial injustice protests, police brutality and a host of issues that have plagued the US for years. The COVID-19 pandemic forced a move to work remotely and proved that productivity can be maintained. To date, remote work has been seen as a business continuity practice, but we need to think bigger. 

The remote work and diversity movements go together. How? Technology companies have typically required employees to work in places that are expensive and out of reach for those without generational wealth. Without some financial help, it is almost impossible for an upwardly mobile poor or working-class person to relocate to a region that takes more economically than it gives. These regions — New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and increasingly Austin — are out of reach for the middle class too.

By having a business practice that requires employees to move to an expensive tech hub, companies are torpedoing diversity efforts. Companies need to go where the talent is.

Here’s the cycle:

  1. Aspiring working class college student from Philly applies to work at Google and garners interest.
  2. Choices are New York or Bay Area.
  3. Parent(s) have already shouldered some of the student loan burden and barely getting by.
  4. Break out the calculators and allow the checkbook to hit you upside the head and you realize it makes no economic sense to move. Let’s get real: The move is financially impossible. Candidate stays local.

Now you can replace Google with any tech company such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft and get the same cycle. And these companies wonder why they can’t move the needle on diversity — racial, economic or otherwise. Unless a candidate has generational wealth moving to an overpriced location isn’t much of an option.

Without remote work, tech giants will stay in the cycle of hiring candidates from wealthy backgrounds. It’s a prep school merry-go-round.  

Also: 

Google last week noted that it is looking to improve Black+ representation at senior levels by 30% by 2025 and will spend $175 million to create economic opportunity “to support Black business owners, startup founders, job seekers, and developers.” Google also noted that it will “increase our investments in places such as Atlanta, Washington DC, Chicago, and London.”

Investing in those locations may not help much on the diversity front since it’s hard to argue those are low-cost locations although Atlanta and Chicago may hold promise. I’d be a bit less cynical if Google said they would invest in offices in Baltimore, Philly, Louisville and Camden.

Fortunately, COVID-19 just forced the greatest A/B test on remote work and accelerated a shift that would have taken years if not decades to play out. Companies are planning to close out commercial real estate leases and adopt a hybrid remote work model. That shift will enable companies to hire in more locations and diversify the employee base.

The argument against using remote work to enhance diversity efforts is that you’d create an underclass of workers that wouldn’t move up to leadership ranks. That criticism may be valid, but remote work has given workers a voice they might not have had otherwise. When everyone is a square on a video conference it’s just easier to speak up compared to knocking on a corner office door.

In other words, you can identify leadership remotely. And once you identify that talent remotely you can put in relocation programs to make a move economically feasible. By then, these candidates would also have a few years of salary and a financial cushion to consider relocating.