Challenges of Remote DEI
"Building DEI capacity within organizations is already complex as it is; with the added layer of our team operating fully virtually, DEI work has required intentional designs and strategies based on the dynamics of being remote."
– Stephen Pham, The Learning Accelerator
More and more, organizations are recognizing the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), especially equity-driven nonprofits and social impact companies. Focusing on DEI not only improves organizational culture but has also been shown to increase productivity, innovation, and GDP.
DEI work is already complex as it is, requiring dedicated capacity, time for ongoing learning, a cultural commitment to improvement, and a willingness on behalf of the organization to change both practices and overall paradigms. As the demands of our global economy – and public health crises – shift the workplace to being more distributed and virtual, organizations are grappling with how to reconcile the dynamics of remote work with the environment required for effective DEI work.
In exploring remote DEI (the intersections of remote culture with DEI), the Remote DEI Collective identified several key challenges around both building internal DEI capacity and ensuring diverse, equitable, and inclusive practices across organizations.
Building relationships and deepening trust
DEI and identity work requires strong relationships, vulnerability, and trust, all of which can be difficult to foster within remote environments. Often, there are fewer opportunities for informal "water-cooler" chatter and organic relationship-building, leading to a common feeling of isolation. Especially when restricted to phone or video calls, which limit participants' abilities to read non-verbal cues and emotional dispositions, virtual spaces make it challenging for individuals to connect with colleagues and show up authentically.
Navigating conflict and creating space for courageous conversations
By virtue of remote work dynamics, colleagues can have significantly fewer touchpoints with one another. Consequently, teams can place a high value on maintaining harmony rather than addressing underlying conflicts. When interactions are limited to scheduled calls, it is often easier to avoid a sensitive topic or change the course of dialogue to ignore tough subjects. When a culture of sweeping conflicts under the rug is developed, unconscious biases and microaggressions go unchallenged, and those with power and privilege benefit most.
Mitigating the inherent biases with remote work and talent
Being able to work remotely assumes several things about an employee: they have the means to set up or access an effective workspace, they can troubleshoot technology and access virtual spaces, they can travel to in-person meetings, and more – not to mention securing a remote role is often based on the strength of one’s professional network. Biases are rife when organizations recruit, hire, and onboard staff, but organizations must confront these biases to improve DEI.
Optimizing organizational culture and practices inclusively and equitably
White supremacy culture (Dismantling Racism Works) is already deeply seated in professional spaces, but certain characteristics can be exacerbated in remote environments. Without physical proximity, managers can overemphasize productivity, focusing on quantity over quality. Teams may value working independently versus collaboratively, leading to a competitive culture and individualism. Leaders might reward those to whom they are more strongly connected, hoarding power within the organization. Such instances of white supremacy culture in remote spaces benefit those with more power – whether based on one’s role, identity, or proximity to whiteness. Explore more of our insights on white supremacy culture in remote work in our crosswalk.