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How does flexible working affect creativity, diversity and inclusion?

6 Oct 2021

Hays’ James Milligan looks at how remote and hybrid working will affect diversity and inclusion as well as our creative thinking.

Diversity and inclusion are intrinsically linked with innovation, with many esteemed tech leaders increasingly recognising that teams with diverse backgrounds and mindsets drive transformational growth.

But, as the world of tech continues to push the remote work agenda and adopt remote or hybrid working models, what impact will this have on the level of creativity and inclusion at your own organisation?

The tech industry has a longstanding problem with diversity and inclusion

A lack of diversity has led to negative consequences within technology. This Harvard Business Review article highlights two recent examples where facial recognition software exacerbated discrimination against people of colour and virtual reality headsets, designed by men, made women feel nauseous.

But remote work could help improve diversity within the industry, according to the techies. Two-thirds of tech workers predict that the growing acceptance of working from home will increase more inclusive participation in terms of disability (79pc), gender (77pc) and race/ethnicity (72pc). More than 90pc also believe it will boost geographic diversity, drawing new hires from different regions or cities.

While these stats are encouraging, remote work is not a quick fix to promote diversity and inclusion at your organisation. After all, longer-term remote or hybrid working models bring about many new inclusion challenges that you would need to consider too. For example, how you communicate and collaborate with your remote staff has a direct impact on the extent to which they feel included.

Microsoft launched a research initiative at the start of the pandemic and has recently released its findings: “While some found online meetings more inclusive, due to the ‘level playing field’ of all-remoteness, others who were less likely to speak up in physical meetings were also less likely to contribute online.”

Remote work can also hamper many of the natural, everyday encounters you experience in the office, such as those random conversations that can sometimes lead to great innovations, a phenomenon often referred to as ‘casual collisions’.

Groupthink is also more likely during digital communications, where decision-making is ruled by the ease of conformity, stopping innovation dead in its tracks. Plus, virtual meeting attendees are more likely to zone out. “The lack of physical cues, body language and ability to gauge emotions were said to be significant hurdles to productive disagreement and decision-making,” according Microsoft.

There are many tech solutions that can help encourage ‘casual collisions’ and facilitate brainstorming and creativity when working remotely such as Facebook Workspace, Focusmate and PukkaTeam.

When done right, remote work can breed creativity 

But the disappearance of those in-person ‘casual collisions’ may not be the only factor potentially impacting your organisation’s creativity. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, economist Enrico Moretti expressed concern around the fact famous tech hubs like Silicon Valley are dispersing and moving to remote set-ups, and that a worker in a city with many companies in their field will produce better ideas at a faster pace. Moretti also said that when a worker leaves one of these specialised cities or tech hubs, they innovate at a slower pace.

However, interestingly, a poll conducted by Hays on LinkedIn found that only one-quarter of tech staff think the office provides them with a more creative work environment than working remotely.

And it makes sense. When it’s done right, remote work lets everyone contribute their ideas, gives them access to new collaborative tools, boosts diversity of both staff and their ideas, and gives everyone access to the best facilitators.

Some even say remote working makes us more creative because we can manage interruptions and curate a physical space to maximise creativity. So, by offering flexible working arrangements to your employees – for example, for those with caring commitments who need to vary their working hours – you will in turn be boosting the innovation of your workforce.

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Replace ‘culture fit’ with ‘culture add’ 

Another option to help promote diversity and inclusion within your tech workforce is to replace the notion of ‘culture fit’ with a ‘culture add’ mindset. Here, companies seek out people who will add something that the team doesn’t currently have.

Thanks to the borderless nature of remote working, you’ll now have a wider pool of diverse talent to choose from, ultimately boosting your team’s creativity by hiring people with different mindsets, experiences and cultures.

Many companies are adopting this ‘culture add’ ethos. Buffer, for example, has preferred remote work for years. It started focusing on it back in 2017, shifting its focus to a ‘values fit’ philosophy to help it hire people who share its goals, but that come from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, who can bring something different to the table.

Maintain your diversity agenda in the short and long term 

It’s important to remember that implementing flexible work at your organisation is just one part of building a more diverse workforce and inclusive workplace. In fact, many tech companies are now setting long-term targets to do better.

In June 2020, for example, Google announced plans to improve representation of ethnic minorities at senior levels by 30pc by 2025. The company’s chief diversity officer Melonie Parker, also wrote an article in May 2020 explaining how to foster inclusion while working from home. “We want everyone to feel comfortable, empowered, and heard, because it makes them — and all of us — more successful,” Parker said.

Such sentiments are admirable and may inspire you to set similar ambitions. Remember that a strong diversity and inclusion strategy should focus on empathetic leadership, individuality and establishing a sense of belonging for everyone, according to a recent report from McKinsey.

A great place to start when working on your new strategy is to consider what you can do to invest in your up-and-coming tech talent – those people who are going to form your future workforce.

Are there any local community groups you could work with to develop diverse talent? You could consider partnering with local schools and colleges, too.

Inclusion is a business commitment – not a one-off pursuit 

Diversity and inclusion sits at the heart of digital growth, helping innovation thrive. As remote work continues to break down international boundaries, the tech industry has more opportunities than ever to embrace diversity and succeed on a global scale.

Innovation and creativity are also key reasons why tech professionals feel passionate about working in tech and for a specific employer and importantly, why they stay working for them. But are levels of diversity and innovation hampered when working remotely? The jury is still out.

By James Milligan

James Milligan is the global head of technology at Hays. A version of this article originally appeared on the Hays Technology blog.

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