Distributed Working is the Greatest Lever for DE&I 🌍

If you wield it for good, not evil.

Jessica Zwaan
8 min readAug 21, 2020

“I don’t think we should lower the bar”

If you’re reading this post I imagine you already know why this sentence is perhaps the laziest possible excuse for not prioritising DEI.

Actually the laziest is probably preceded by “if it ain’t broke...”

If there is one thing 2020 has brought screaming into the collective consciousness, it’s that something is very broke, and whatever the heck “the bar” is — it has been disenfranchising extraordinarily talented, capable human beings for a long, long, long time.

I always try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and to presume the best intent. I acknowledge the fact a lot of folks I’ve worked with have never been in the people-operations hot-seat before, and they tend to repeat what they’ve heard in previous jobs, or by previous (often not fantastic) HR teams and recruiters.

Whenever someone says something like, “we don’t want to lower the bar” I wonder what motivates them to say this, and I’ve boiled it down to a few things I’d like to talk about further (although there are plenty more).

1 — They’re a bigot.

Not everyone who says things like this is a bigot, of course — but some are. Identifying, admitting, and acknowledging this is an important part of moving beyond white fragility, or normalising sexism, or homo/transphobia.

Levi Saunders: https://unsplash.com/@levisaunders

If you’re dealing with this category of people I fear there is not much you can do in one conversation (or even hundreds). I’m yet to see someone flip, and I am not sure I’d have the patience to manage the transition from a bigot to a not-bigot. I’m assured it happens, but there are 7 billion people in this world, and these folk are examples of my “the Bar” being lowered so, to them, I say, “bye.” 👋

2 — They’re parroting something they’ve heard and haven’t really thought about it.

I find this is often the case. If you ask, “what do you mean by that?” You might get some defensiveness, a pause, and hopefully the steps towards really recognising that:

If “the Bar” is excluding you from consciously diversifying your team, the bar is not aligned with building successful, happy, scalable teams. The research backs this up.

Treat this as an opportunity to destroy “the Bar” forever.

I am always pleased to be present on the days’ someone takes some new information onboard and changes their mind for the better. Losing unsavoury tropes like, “what if we lower the bar” from your vocabulary is certainly a freeing and optimistic experience; you get to be the one to help give that to this colleague. Go you. 🧁

3 — They are recruiting into a niche role and are scared to narrow it even further.

Now, I have to admit, although I don’t agree — this I can empathise with.

For the next few paragraphs, you’re hiring for your B2B Cat-Photography App and you need an iOS savvy Product Designer.

If you are on Linkedin Recruiter looking for a Senior Product Designer in London you will find roughly 6,000 candidates. If you add current seniority and some B2B experience into the mix that shrinks to ~450.

If you need technical skills in mobile/app development that number rapidly shrinks to around 100, of which a few dozen are actively looking. Add almost any other filter and you’re looking at a handful of candidates who might want to come and chat to you about you reaching your big cat-photographing dreams.

It’s not a perfect illustration (LinkedIn recruiter isn’t a perfect tool by any stretch of the imagination), but I can certainly understand how proposing layering a commitment to diversifying the candidate pool could make a less-convinced hiring manager a little anxious (in which case, I urge you to go back up to point 2).

Committing to distributed working totally blows this — the only even remotely reasonable excuse — out of the water.

Of course, not every company can commit to being fully remote, but those which can should consider what this move can do for strengthening a culture underpinned by the importance of DEI.

2020 — again — has given our teams the gift of realising this is all incredibly possible for the majority of us. This means you may have distributed working demanded of you.

Distributed working destroys “the Bar”

Being able to recruit from everywhere totally changes the game in terms of the opportunity to invite new backgrounds, histories, languages, ethnicities, cultures, and perspectives into your teams.

Working in distributed-first businesses I’ve never felt so humbled by the sheer volume of talented, capable, passionate human beings I’ve been able to speak to about joining my team — distributed working really opens up the field in terms of recruitment.

This means, I think, one of the purest challenges in Diversity — the “statistics” — are a non-issue for those who might have reservations.

Of course, that’s only one piece of a very complex puzzle.

Distributed Working Coopts Flexibility

If distributed working does magic for diversity, flexibility performs the same magic for inclusion. If you’re doing distributed working well — I’d even say “right” — you should be embracing flexibility in your principles.

Time flexibility:

  • Carers can care for their parents, children, loved ones
  • Differently-abled colleagues can work within their needs and limits
  • Night-owls can stay up, morning folk can rise and shine
  • Those who need or want additional education can find the time they need

Location flexibility:

  • Environments can be adjusted for the needs of individuals
  • Families can be together to support each other
  • Languages can be spoken
  • Homes can be afforded
  • Hobbies can be enjoyed

Cross-cultural Differences can be Embraced

You’ve done a lot of work: you’re working in a team which has embraced distributed working, you’ve began to recruit unique people from corners of the world, they’re comfortable, happy, secure in the place that makes them thrive.

Your team will still be working together, although often apart. This means different cultures, histories, languages, and thought-systems will begin to come into the same sphere. The relationships we have with “work culture” has to change, too often it can allow us to fall into traps of hiring those who look, sound, or think alike. This brings challenges, but it also brings great opportunity.

This means your recruitment process has to do the heavy lifting for you and do some hard work to attract, assess, and retain people based on the traits that make their differences shine — rather than the cultural tropes that make you comfortable. I find practical projects, clear values rubrics and question-sets, and an emphasis on pair interviewing contributes towards a cumulative effort in propelling this agenda.

This also means you’re going to be asked questions about how you plan to foster a culture of inclusivity, belonging, and equity. Be honest when you answer those questions.

Use it for Good, Not Evil

Not all businesses will use distributed working for good. If there is one word I’ve adopted into my vocabulary to describe the worst parts of 2020, it’s “performative.”

Preformative flexibility, preformative DEI efforts, performative values about transparency: I’ve seen it all.

Distributed working has commercial benefits, absolutely. People are happier, stay in your team longer, have a healthier relationship with work and life: if you promote that and encourage flexibility, psychological safety, and a sense of holistic work-life balance.

24-hour working

Distributed working also distributes hours, making it difficult to switch off, and it easier to work longer and more frequently. If you are interviewing at a remote working company, or in the People Team: ask the question about how and where lines are drawn. Seek out published documentation and open communications from businesses and their leaders. What do they value? How do they work?

Taking advantage of emerging markets

San Francisco, New York, and London salaries, rent, and cost of living are astronomical. Many businesses working in a distributed fashion are naturally reluctant to submit to compensating their team according to ‘big city’ salaries. But, if you do not have a comprehensive and egalitarian compensation structure, businesses are more likely to fall into a trap of pay gaps, or taking advantage of emerging markets.

If you are a HR/People Leader in a distributed workplace you simply must prioritise developing a compensation methodology which takes these awkward, and very real facts into account. Prepare for them early, do not let yourselves fall into unsustainable or unethical pay practices.

Relying too much on referrals

Referrals are great, I’m not going to lie. I rarely have the time to interview the ‘wild-cards’ which apply for roles, and I love that referrals equip me with the details hidden in a CV so that I can do that from time to time.

Although, referrals have a ghastly price for DEI. There is research that demonstrates that encouraging referrals without careful consideration of other candidates who have applied (or are sourced) can be damaging to building a diverse and inclusive culture.

These stats are unacceptable to me. For this reason, once brought into an interview process, you should not give referrals preferential treatment.

Working in a fully distributed (and distributed-by-nature) team, I know it’s not as easy as I am making it out to be. Whereby still have a long way to go in terms of diversifying the people and perspectives in our organisation. This is something I cannot wait to partner with the team on.

But — running into fully distributed working is the greatest thing we could ever have done to move this from the “possible” into to “abso-fucking-lutely” level of likelihood.

With all that said, myself and the team have quite a lot of work to do. 👋

👀 I curate an open-source list of resources to recruit, retain, train, and engage a diverse and inclusive workforce… take a look here (and add your own ideas): https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1XTjDxYdgzN7GarnK0Gz-3CSdx4ivw-0oWxc3ctGJ8Ac/edit#gid=0

Me and my cat, looking professional

I am a person and I like to think I am good enough to do it professionally. So that’s what I do. I’m a hands-on Chief People Officer. I find my joy in diverse, kind, and world-changing companies of excellent people, which is why I am at Whereby, where our mission is to give people the freedom to live and work where they thrive. (How fantastic is that?)

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Jessica Zwaan

G’day. 🐨 I am a person and I like to think I am good enough to do it professionally. So that’s what I do.