Will the pandemic-induced shift to remote work help organizations increase diversity?
Yes, some companies say—at least for technology jobs.
Technical fields have long lacked diversity; some 80 percent of software engineers in the U.S. are white men, according to McKinsey. Despite pledges to diversify, technology companies have yet to make much progress.
Yet, while many organizations laid off staff and scaled back hiring because of COVID-19, demand for technology professionals held steady and even increased. According to recently released data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of tech jobs in May 2020 was 1.2 percent higher than in May 2019. The biggest increases were in data science and information security. Salaries were higher, too.
Increasing their tech talent during the lockdown showed companies how productive and cost-effective remote hiring and working can be. Employers now have the opportunity to recruit from anywhere, opening up more chances for a diverse pool of applicants.
“The pandemic and the changes it has brought about in how work gets done provide an unprecedented opportunity for a turning point,” wrote Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., in a December 2020 article in the Harvard Business Review. The concentration of tech companies in specific geographies limits their ability to recruit and retain different kinds of people, he pointed out. “Seventy-five percent of venture capital funding is concentrated in just three states—New York, California, and Massachusetts—and more than 90 percent of technology-intensive innovation-sector growth between 2005 and 2017 occurred in just five metro areas,” he wrote.
Recent research at Tufts identified regions of “tech talent diversity” in the United States, ranked them by “digital readiness,” then factored in information like cost of living to identify six states—Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Texas and Virginia—that represent “an untapped opportunity for the big tech companies to establish recruitment strategies to diversify their workforce,” Chakravorti said.
In March, The New York Times reported that tech companies were adding offices in particular geographies, notably Atlanta, as a way to recruit a more ethnically diverse talent pool. Among them are Microsoft, Google and Airbnb. The city has several historically Black colleges and universities that produce a wealth of tech talent.
“This is absolutely a winning strategy,” said Will McNeil, co-founder and CEO of Black Tech Jobs, a Chicago-based tech recruiting firm, which has been able to recruit Black Atlantans to join Silicon Valley-based tech companies remotely. “As soon as you decide employees can work from anywhere, you can win the diversity battle, you can go where the Black talent is.”
TrustRadius, a 70-person company that publishes reviews of business technology products, last year came out with its own report, “People of Color in Tech,” based on a survey of 1,200 technology professionals. Of all the major cities, respondents from Atlanta were most likely to report an increase in people of color in technology over the last decade. Respondents in Austin, Texas; San Francisco; Denver; and Los Angeles were less likely to report an increase in people of color in tech. Austin—where TrustRadius is based—is the only growing city in the U.S. where the Black population is actually shrinking, according to the report.
Like most companies, TrustRadius embraced remote hiring during the pandemic. About half of the 15 new employees it hired over the last year are remote, said Vinay Bhagat, the company’s founder and CEO. They include people located in Atlanta, Virginia and other parts of Texas.
Increased diversity is just a fortunate byproduct of remote hiring, Bhagat said. He thinks the industry’s outreach is driven more by the need to find high-quality talent quickly as well as—at least for Silicon Valley-based companies—by lower costs in other regions.
Steve Cadigan, a recruiting consultant who served as LinkedIn’s first HR director, hopes that the acceptance of remote work becomes an opportunity to change certain practices that discourage diversity. Some believe that unconscious bias may be less likely during a video interview than an in-person interview, for example.
Although remote work can separate people from their existing networks, it may also encourage the formation of new, more inclusive networks within a company. During the pandemic, for example, some of Cadigan’s clients launched “coffee roulette” programs that deliberately matched up co-workers who did not know each other well, he noted. “That kind of thing disintermediates the way we normally hang out. We can’t hang out at the water cooler with our regular friends,” Cadigan said. “Such new norms of interaction can develop and foster more diversity.”
It’s too early to determine to what extent companies will diversify by hiring more people from different geographic areas. “We’re still in the midst of the great experiment,” Cadigan said. “But there are reasons to believe that there will be some positives outcomes.”
Tam Harbert is a freelance technology and business reporter based in the Washington, D.C., area.