The Future of Work Is an Opportunity to Do Better With DEI
As we move forward into the Fourth Industrial Revolution — with the future of work, the onset of AI technology and innovation and the expanding definitions of hybrid work — do we really understand the impact to corporate diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives? Now that organizations are moving from fully remote work back to either full-time in office work or hybrid work, what is the impact on certain groups, communities and peoples who saw greater opportunities to find employment when remote work was in place, and who may now lose those opportunities? Do we really understand the people impact of the future of work?
The Fourth Industrial Revolution
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is not just about technology; it’s also about the increased requirement for data and analytics and enhanced connectivity. This fundamental change is disrupting and impacting our workspace and how we live and work together — all as employers and employees alike continue to work through the transformation of how, when and where we work. This technology merges the digital, physical and the human-centric all at an enhanced pace. The challenge is to ensure that we sustain human value while balancing technology advancements and guaranteeing we protect equity and inclusion.
“The future of work asks us to consider the biggest questions of our age. What influence will the continuing march of technology, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI) have on where we work and how we work? Will we need to work at all? What is our place in an automated world?” — Workforce of the future: The competing forces shaping 2030, PWC
The human element for remote work was not top of mind at the beginning of the pandemic, creating challenges and concerns for corporate employees and employers as companies scrambled to adjust. One human-centric concern centered on the consequences of the personal and workspace blending. In other words: Using video calls to work from home gave employers and coworkers insight into people’s personal lives and culture they may not have wanted to share. It is important to remember and understand as we continue to transition through the future of work that this transition has both positive and negative effects on people, and that these positive and negative impacts are interdependent.
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Positive Impact of the Future of Work
As we move through the remote work process — building protocols and working towards best practices — employees and employers realize benefits and positive impacts that are continuing with the future of work, such as:
- An increased focus on self-care.
- Improved work-life balance.
- Flexible work hours.
- Flexible work locations.
- Potential reduction in childcare expenses.
- Other cost savings — transportation and travel costs, parking expenses, lunch costs and clothing expenses.
- Access to a broader talent pool.
- Employee retention.
- Higher productivity.
- Potential cost savings — office space and equipment cost.
- Reduction in absenteeism.
- Opportunity to enhance technology and collaboration tools.
However, for individuals from certain groups and communities these positive impacts included more than just preferences: Remote or hybrid work also addressed psychological safety concerns. Remote work also presented an opportunity to address the detrimental impacts of discrimination and racism in the workspace, increasing employment opportunities and removing accessibility barriers. For racialized peoples, groups and communities, fitting into the corporate culture did not necessarily allow them to be authentic in the in-person workspace.
“Covering” in the Workspace
“A recent survey conducted by Gallup Center on Black Voices revealed a disturbing truth: it was found out that in 2020 almost a quarter of Black employees and workers reported to experience one form of discrimination or another as a part of their work experience. Similarly, other studies focused on work experiences in the pandemic also showed that, during the pandemic, in the absence of a face to office culture, Black employees and freelancers reported having more positive work experiences.” — Gallup Center for Black Voices, January 2021
When employees are concerned about being discriminated against or judged for their culture, beliefs, groups, communities and unique identities, they “cover” in the workspace — ensuring that their actions, behaviors, and performance does not stand out in the workspace, often suppressing their thoughts and opinions to fit into the corporate culture. Covering is an intentional strategy individuals use to protect themselves, their mental wellness and their personal space. If there is covering in the workspace, then there is not a true culture of inclusion within the organization.
Black women in the workspace are also affected by the intersectionality of gender, identity, culture and the need to fit in, meaning they often must change personal appearance and behaviors to prevent discrimination. On a personal note, for example, several years ago in an effort to “fit in” with the Insurance and Finance industry here in Canada I straightened my hair and showed up for interviews and meetings in dark suits — often pantsuits. I did not feel my expertise was enough to be taken seriously. Then one day, a senior executive made the comment, “I prefer when you straighten your hair — it looks better.”
That was it for me: I have not straightened my big and curly hair since then, and my funky shoes and outfits are back in my wardrobe. Honestly, though, until I heard that comment I didn’t realize I was covering — and my question at that point was: who am I doing this for? It was time to be authentic and make space for others in my community to have access to similar opportunities for success. Still, though, for many Black women, covering is an act of survival in the workspace:
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- 66% of Black women change their hair for a job interview, the Crown 2023 Workplace Research Study found.
- The same study found that more than 20% of Black women between 25 and 34 have been sent home from work because of their hair.
- Black women also reported being 54% more likely to feel they must wear their hair straight to a job interview to be successful.
- A Harvard Business Review study found that 81% of women of color experienced at least some racism.
- Black women are twice as likely to experience microaggressions in the workplace, according to data.
For LGBTQ+ employees, covering is also important for psychological safety to avoid harassment and discrimination in the workspace. A 2021 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA found:
- Nearly half of LGBT workers have experienced unfair treatment at work at some point in their lives.
- LGBT employees of color were more likely to report verbal harassment and being denied jobs.
- Many LGBT employees reported engaging in “covering” behaviors to avoid harassment or discrimination at work.
Just using the washrooms can leave LGBTQ+ employees open to discrimination and harassment. As part of People/Human Resources teams I have heard both the complaints from other employees about the “wrong person” being in the washroom and the concern from leaders who don’t know how to deal with these complaints or with an employee who is transitioning. Covering, for this community, often involves isolating themselves or withdrawing from group and social discussions and events to limit talking about their personal lives.
Transgender employees were significantly more likely to engage in covering behaviors than cisgender LGB employees. For example, 36% of transgender employees said that they changed their physical appearance and 28% said they changed their bathroom use at work compared to 23% and 15% of cisgender LGB employees.
Related Article: Does Your DEI Program Include Neurodiversity?
Opportunities for Accessibility
When the pandemic suddenly forced most of the corporate world to work remotely or in a hybrid workspace, employers had to focus on options to accommodate employees remotely — which also increased accessibility. These changes also created a range of assistive supports and advocacy that in turn provided more employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
Workers with disabilities gained access to employment opportunities that were previously not open to them, and employers gained another stream of talent to hire from. Remote or hybrid working can remove or at least reduce physical accessibility barriers and transportation challenges for employees with disabilities. Remote environments also allow employees to access their medication management systems and supports, mobility technology and more comfortable and productive work environments.
A new study by the Economic Innovation Group found that the employment rate for people with disabilities did not simply reach the pre-pandemic level by mid-2022 but rose far past it to the highest rate in over a decade. Remote work, combined with a tight labor market, explains this high rate, according to the analysis.
As a society and within the corporate world, we should consider the people impact to communities, groups and peoples who have now been given the opportunity to join the work environment, actively contributing to the future of work, and thriving as valued contributors to the future ahead of us.
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