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Technology for DE&I in a Virtual Work World


A woman is sitting at a table and using a laptop.


​Many companies espouse commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) these days, but they face challenges—such as hybrid or remote work models that can open doors for some but exclude others. Here are some best practices for ensuring DE&I efforts aren't diminished or minimized in a hybrid or remote work environment. 

Technology-Related Benefits for DE&I Efforts

When the pandemic forced many employees to work remotely, some unexpected benefits immediately emerged. Employees quickly appreciated the freedom and flexibility that remote work offered—along with savings of time and money on commuting and other expenses.

Employers have also benefited in unexpected ways, including the ability to attract a broader and, in many cases, more diverse pool of applicants.

"Virtual work has allowed VISIONS to have a much deeper pool of consultants to work with," said Elika Dadsetan-Foley, CEO and executive director of the consulting company based in Dorchester, Mass. "This has, also, allowed greater cross-pollination of our consulting teams—giving consultants a chance to work with a wider diversity of their colleagues and to see new and different approaches and styles to get feedback from new sources."

Reyana Fayyaz, the head of product at Kudoboard in Denver, agrees that technology can offer DE&I-related benefits. "DE&I initiatives backed by tech can also help businesses to retain talent, create better outcomes and give chances to historically marginalized populations," she said. For example:

  • Remote work and HR tech can help eliminate location barriers. Technology connects employees regardless of their physical locations. 
  • Technology can improve accessibility for employees with disabilities.

These benefits can particularly impact those in historically marginalized communities, said Angie Bergner, vice president of people and business operations at Veris Insights, a leading recruiting analytics firm in Washington, D.C. Historically marginalized communities can refer to populations such as people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, senior citizens, and individuals with disabilities. "We know from our research that half of job applicants—52 percent—prioritize open roles with hybrid or remote work options, and this is especially true for historically marginalized communities," Bergner said. "With so many options for virtual collaboration and connection, technology plays a huge role in our ability to attract and retain diverse talent from a racial and ethnicity diversity perspective and the perspective of diversity across other factors as well." She notes specific groups where flexible work is a high priority:

  • Candidates with neurological conditions including autism, ADHD and dyslexia.
  • Candidates without four-year college degrees.
  • Caregivers.
  • Veterans.

Some Tech Downfalls 

Despite these benefits, though, technology can also create barriers. Access is one. Not all employees have equal access to the equipment and connectivity needed to engage equally in a digital world. And while many employers can provide the equipment, connectivity remains a challenge in some areas. In addition, some employees' home situations make them hesitant, or entirely resistant, to keeping their cameras on during Zoom calls, for example.

Even with sufficient access, research suggests that some employees may be less comfortable using digital communications.

For instance, a report from Loom, a platform for asynchronous communication, found that Black employees are less comfortable participating in conversations using digital communications than their white colleagues. 

It's important, Bergner said, to have clear standards for how technology will be used in a remote or hybrid environment—"things like camera on/off expectations for everyone; ensuring everyone has access to the equipment they need; training for people managers on managing in a hybrid environment to accommodate for the fact that folks are now working from home, which means possible disruptions like kids, pets, spotty Wi-Fi." These, she said, "are all factors that tie into DE&I in the workplace and our ability to attract and retain talent."

Proximity Bias

One of the greatest risks of hybrid or remote work is the tendency for proximity bias to limit visibility and career opportunities. "While technology has expanded our reach to a more diverse workforce, it has also created a need for more intentionality and guidelines around how we work effectively and use technology effectively so we're not harming our DE&I initiatives," Bergner suggested. "Proximity bias is one of those potential pitfalls. The tendency to look more favorably on the people that we physically see most in the office can create inequities in career opportunities and advancement," she said.

Remote employees may also miss out on relationship opportunities, which can especially impact members of historically marginalized groups.

Marginalization

"If there isn't an intentional process and set of practices for recruitment teams embracing a technology/remote-first type of recruitment environment, there can also be harm done to historically marginalized communities," Bergner said. For instance: "Not preparing all candidates equally on what to expect in a virtual interview process can lead to inequities, not allowing for flexibility on camera off/on, not accounting for candidates' access or lack of access to technology for the interview process are all things that need to be accounted for."

Remote and hybrid work can be a double-edged sword, said Denise Hamilton, CEO and founder of WatchHerWork.com, a Houston-based digital learning platform for women. "Members of marginalized communities dodge the inevitable microaggressions that can make participation in corporate environments difficult, but they also miss out on the relationship building, mentorship and sponsorship that can occur with proximity." In addition, she said: "Most managers have not been adequately trained to equitably manage a remote workforce. Until they are, the onus falls on the employee to stay engaged."

Technology Bias

Technology, itself, can perpetuate bias. While it's common to think of technology as being inherently "unbiased," that's not necessarily true. Bias can creep in because of the humans who program or otherwise interact with the technology.

Sameer Maskey, CEO and founder of Fusemachines, with offices in New York City and Nepal, and an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, said: "It's very easy for human biases to seep into the AI systems, resulting in specific preference for candidates of certain backgrounds, ethnicities and genders. Since AI learns from past data, if humans preferred candidates of certain backgrounds, the AI system can reflect those decisions. Similarly, an algorithm assessing an employee can be skewed in an unfair way due to unseen biases. This can happen when algorithms are based on data shared by biased human managers, thus spreading more of this bias."

Despite these potential downfalls related to the use of technology in a remote or hybrid work setting, there are some positive shifts. Loom's research found that:

  • 35 percent of employees of color reported that they communicated more with their teams than they did when in the office full time.
  • Black and other employees of color (31 percent) indicated that they're better able to express themselves and showcase their personal tone of voice through digital communication, compared with 18 percent of white co-workers.
  • Black employees indicated that their visibility with leadership has increased (33 percent) as a result of working remotely.

Best Practices

Following some best practices can help companies minimize the potential negatives that technology may represent in remote work environments.

The same technology that may create barriers challenging organizations' DE&I efforts, also holds promise, said Hallam Sargeant, chief inclusion and diversity officer at Avanade in Seattle.

"I think we're in a place where technology can alleviate plenty of these issues," Sargeant said. "Some of this boils down to good etiquette, like allowing people to type their responses on calls rather than answering verbally, or not having camera-mandatory policies for meetings." On a more granular level, he said, "tech capabilities offer new possibilities for connection, especially for a multinational, multilingual company like Avanade."

Sargeant said tools like Microsoft Teams allow his company "to leverage everything from translation and auto-caption features to asynchronous meeting presentations to help us accommodate the diverse needs of employees from across the globe."

He has also "experimented with innovative Metaverse features like Microsoft's Mesh avatars, which give people the opportunity to present themselves in meetings without ever having to turn their cameras on."

Stephen Paskoff is CEO of workplace training provider ELI, in Vinings, Ga., and former litigator/employment law attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "If there is one thing DE&I training virtually and in person has taught me is that people can discriminate and practice bias regardless of the physical setting that they're in," Paskoff said.

His recommendation: "Communicate and educate on organizational standards for how to properly behave in the virtual world, and then hold everyone to those standards."

Communicating and holding people accountable to workplace values is critical, Paskoff said. "If workplace values are not properly communicated and reinforced and made part of day-to-day expectations applying to everyone, no matter where or how they work, remote workers might increasingly neglect workplace behavioral responsibilities and their connection to their employer's DE&I and related values."

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

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