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Could the shift to remote working make tech more inclusive?

Taking the commute out of the picture just might make for more diverse teams.

  • Tech giants, including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon, have already stated they'll be adapting company policies to allow for more remote working.
  • In the business software and tech infrastructure sectors, which are more in-demand than ever, it seems likely that recruiting will resume quickly, with companies seeking to fill specifically remote positions.
  • The tech sector has long suffered from a diversity problem, and remote working fosters a better culture of inclusivity.

As the coronavirus pandemic has gripped the world, remote working has become a necessity for many of us. According to Gallup research published in April, 62 percent of employed Americans said they had been working from home during the crisis, double the percentage that responded similarly in March.

Now that many countries and US states are pushing to implement a "new normal," it seems that remote working is likely to become far more prevalent even once it's no longer required. Tech giants, including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon, have already stated they'll be adapting company policies to allow for more remote working.

"Many companies are learning that their workers are just as or even more productive working from home," Andy Challenger, senior vice president of staffing firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told USA Today.

Employers are also realizing the benefits of having a more remote workforce. Corporate real estate in prime locations such as San Francisco and New York is expensive, and the big tech firms have historically offered employees a host of amenities, including on-site subsidized cafes, gyms and valet parking. One benefit of having employees work from home is the potential to reduce some of these overheads.

Gallup panel chart showing rise in remote working from March 13 to April 2.

Gallup

Many firms haven't been hiring during the crisis due to ongoing economic uncertainty, while layoffs and furloughs have been instituted at scores of startups. There's also reason to believe that over the summer and fall, a sizable swath of startups will need to close up shop. However, particularly in the business software and tech infrastructure sectors, which are more in-demand than ever, it seems likely that recruiting will resume quickly.

Indeed, many tech firms, including Cisco, Oracle, Red Hat, and HubSpot, had begun hiring even back in April, this time seeking to fill specifically remote positions.

The switch to remote is happening elsewhere in the world, too. Tech is big business in India, and firms there are planning to leverage the shift to remote to implement a "hub and spoke" approach to a hybrid of telecommuting and office work. With the COVID-19 office closures prompting so many team members moving to locations outside the major cities, Zoho VP Praval Singh recently told the Times of India that "we are considering opening small remote offices based on the situation in those areas."

As a result, "We'll create opportunities and encourage people to move to rural areas and be able to work from there."

A cynically-minded person would point to the fact that employing people outside of prime city locations is also going to result in cheaper salary bills. They'd be right, of course. Mark Zuckerberg was the target of much criticism last month when he announced that Facebook was going to become a 50 percent remote company indefinitely, while at the same time telling employees that "We pay a market rate, and that varies by location. We're going to continue that principle here."

On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons why a shift to hiring remote workers would be highly beneficial for both employers, employees, and society at large. Here are some of the biggest reasons.

A bigger talent pool

About 86 percent of hiring managers have said they've struggled to find qualified tech talent. By widening their hiring activities beyond the major city hubs, employers will find they can reach a far bigger pool of available candidates.

A qualified candidate living in one of the flyover states or rural America may not want or be able to relocate to the bigger cities. Until now, that's meant that these people have been largely excluded from the market. The ability to work remotely means a tech firm can capture this talent. Critically, employers benefit from this vastly increased talent pool without increasing their cost base.

Joonko, a hiring platform used by leading tech firms like Intuit, PayPal, and Atlassian, recently announced the rollout of its Remote-Ready planner tool, aimed at helping firms recruit remote talent, more inclusively. "Employers willing to take a remote-ready approach have the opportunity to reduce overheads, gain the benefit of geographical arbitrage, while giving themselves access to a vastly more diverse pool of talent based in locations all around the country," explained Ilit Raz, the company's CEO, via email. "Employees who work at home are also generally more productive without the pressure of a daily commute."

The numbers back this claim. According to an April poll from Citrix of 10,000 U.S. employees, 77 percent said they were more productive working at home, and 69 percent said they were working the same number of hours, or more, than they put in when they'd been office-bound.

Historically, many tech firms have attempted to mitigate their hiring challenges by setting up offices close to institutions such as Stanford or MIT. This trend only perpetuated the situation, though, as companies were born from the same ecosystems that they used as recruiting hubs. However, the new shift to remote allows them to diversify their locations, potentially shifting to places where real estate isn't some of the most expensive in the world and non-white talent is easier to come by.

More flexibility and more diversity

Controversial pay cuts aside, employees also appear happy with the shift to remote working. The same research by Gallup found that, of those who were working at home during the pandemic, 59 percent wanted things to stay that way even once restrictions are lifted.

Without being compelled to move to big cities, employees have far more flexibility to manage their work-life balance without the daily commutes. They can also eliminate commuting expenses.

The talent connection works both ways too. Just as employers have access to a bigger talent pool by casting the net more widely, candidates in remote locations also have the opportunity to apply for jobs from which they were previously excluded. Remote working, then, fosters a better culture of inclusivity.

The tech sector has, of course, long suffered from a diversity problem. It's been over five years since the industry buckled in to pressure and finally committed to publishing diversity reports, making tech companies headcount cohorts more transparent. And given the current climate of "enough is enough" when it comes to racial inequalities, it's especially shocking to see that little progress has been made over time.

Chart of Black Woekers in Big Tech

CNBC

"We're at a crucial crossroads — I don't think what tech companies have done to date is anywhere near enough," Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at Kapor Capital, told CNBC earlier this month.

And this isn't only about race. Women are traditionally underrepresented compared to their male counterparts, and women of color represent only 4 percent of the overall tech workforce, according to McKinsey.

Raz, Joonko's CEO, feels strongly about this, having founded her company largely in response to the challenges faced by women in tech. "Today's active parents are extremely busy with their roles as family caregivers, which often means they're excluded from jobs as they can't relocate," she said. "Even when they decide to move to a different city for a career opportunity that comes up, they still need to be around at home during traditional working hours to ferry kids to and from school and activities. A remote-ready approach opens up massive opportunities for this segment of the workforce, for employers as well as fathers and mothers."

A better society and a more balanced economy

Opening up remote opportunities creates a more equitable workforce in a way that isn't contrived. Raz believes it presents an ideal opportunity for companies to walk the talk, from a diversity and inclusion perspective.

"With smart remote hiring in 2020, tech companies have the opportunity to break out of the cycle of diversity pledges that are perceived by the public as lip service. Today it's possible to achieve diversity and inclusion with real value – not only as a matter of quota compliance or publicity play," she said. "Going remote gives recruiters the ability to onboard physically and mentally challenged individuals, single parents and seniors, in addition to women and minorities. It's time to meaningfully give everyone a place at the table."

More diverse companies create more inclusive tech products, and they make it easier for ethnic minorities and women to believe that they can pursue the career paths that speak to them most. Diverse companies happen to also drive superior business performance, according to a recent report from the United Nations Technology Innovation Labs (UNTIL).

Better Business Performance graphic

UNTIL

Furthermore, a more diverse, remote workforce could help to address the huge problem of housing bubbles in cities such as New York and San Francisco, which have become unsustainable. A more remote workforce reduces the pressure on employees to find homes in these vastly overpriced locations, making them a better place to live for long-time residents or people who grew up there.

In recent decades, as these tech hubs have risen, locals providing key services such as healthcare or public transportation have seen themselves priced out of their own neighborhoods. Some office workers in San Francisco are now already relocating themselves, reducing their rental costs and taking pressure off the already buckling housing market.

Creating new opportunities

Nobody can argue that the coronavirus crisis has been a good thing. However, it has forced us to look at many elements of life through a different lens. The tech sector has been operating based on the decades-old paradigm that employees need to be at desks in offices if they're going to be productive, which doesn't fit with what tech companies actually need from their teams.

The necessary shift to remote working has shone a light on the benefits of a different way. Companies, employees, and society at large can now continue to reap those benefits long after the crisis recedes.

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