Flexible work arrangements can help companies become more diverse and inclusive—here's how

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People have hailed the advantages of working from home throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, but an unexpected benefit has emerged in recent months: Flexible work models are helping companies hire more diverse candidates. 

Flexible work policies allow companies to broaden their prospective talent scope and improve the work experience for their existing employees of color, thus boosting retention and overall culture, Sheela Subramanian, the vice president of the Future Forum, Slack's research consortium, tells CNBC Make It

Future Forum's April 2022 pulse survey, which includes responses from over 10,000 knowledge workers in the U.S., France, Germany and other countries found that the desire for flexibility remains strongest among underrepresented groups. In the U.S., 81% of Hispanic/Latinx workers, 82% of Asian/Asian American and 79% Black workers prefer a hybrid of remote work arrangement compared to 77% of white workers.

The rise of remote work has also coincided with higher employee experience scores among Black employees, per Future Forum's research: Black employees are reporting a greater "sense of belonging" at work (up 10%) and a stronger sense of being "fairly treated" at work (up 7%) compared to November 2021.

How remote work benefits employees of color

Flexible work arrangements can't solve all problems for employees of color, but they can reduce the emotional labor that often comes with being in a predominantly white workplace. 

"Employees of color face microaggressions and friction in the office on a regular basis," Subramanian says. "When that happens in-person, there's more pressure on the employees to grin and bear it, or ignore the comment, whereas in a remote environment, there's the freedom to close your laptop and walk away, and less opportunities for microaggressions to happen in the first place."

With employees of color spending less time in a physical office, she adds, "They don't need to 'code switch' [change one's behavior or appearance to assimilate into a dominant culture] – people can be their whole selves, and conversations are much more focused on work." 

'Talent first, location second'

HIVE Diversity, a virtual recruiting platform that connects companies with college students and recent graduates from diverse backgrounds, has been on the front lines of this trend.

Byron Slosar, the CEO and founder of HIVE Diversity, says a growing number of companies the platform works with are now focusing their hiring on "talent first, location second." "They're  widening their searches for talent beyond their office's zip code and attracting applicants that, in a pre-pandemic world, might have been shut out from those opportunities," he adds.

Alexis Mclaughlin, the executive vice president of business development at HIVE Diversity, was hired remotely by the recruiting platform in July 2021. Prior to joining HIVE Diversity, Mclaughlin spent 8 years as an engineer officer in the U.S. army and about three years working in different finance positions, during which she worked in an office full-time. 

Mclaughlin has worked remotely from Austin since joining the company last year. When she commuted to the office at her previous jobs, Mclaughlin — who is Black and identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community — says she wore tailored suits and was "mistaken for a guy all the time."

She continues: "In a virtual environment, I can put my pronouns – which are she, her, hers – on the screen for a video call, and then my identity is not a question … it relieves a lot of pressure off of me to correct people, and makes conversations feel more comfortable." 

Companies need to facilitate an equitable, inclusive return to office

According to new research from Microsoft, however, about 50% of leaders say their company already requires or is planning to require employees to return to in-person work full-time in the next year, leaving employees wondering what hybrid work will look like in the coming months, or if it will disappear altogether. 

Companies planning to re-open their offices soon need to consider how proximity bias could manifest in a hybrid workplace and what employees of color need as we navigate this new normal, Subramanian says. 

"Managers need to be intentional about what the expectations for their team are and what flexibility will look like in practice," she explains. "It's also really important for managers to start measuring and rewarding results rather than hours worked."

In addition, Subramanian encourages companies to solicit frequent feedback from employees to understand how they feel about returning to the office and what they need to thrive at work.

"Transparency is going to be really important moving forward, especially as companies become even more dispersed," she adds. "These conversations help companies make equity and inclusion a priority as we build the roadmap of what work will look like moving forward." 

Check out:

Twitter, Reddit and 8 other companies offering permanent remote or hybrid work—and hiring right now

These are the 10 best and worst states for working from home, according to WalletHub

The 3 'biggest mistakes' companies make with return to office, according to Google's head of Workspace

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