How Remote Work Improves Diversity

A good question about The Year Without Pants: & The Future of Work from Sibylle, in a comment:

I was wondering how you think Automattic’s model would work for a more diverse workforce. The culture you describe in the book is very much centered on young, male, tech-savvy, western-socialised software developers. I was envisioning myself (female, a generation older, and while working in the tech world, not a technical person myself) in that specific culture and imagined I’d probably be rather miserable. :)

Do you think this kind of approach can still be effective with teams from many diverse backgrounds, different ages, cultures, languages, etc.? What would have to be tweaked?

One tradeoff of the book’s intimacy into the team I lead is you learn more about my team than others in the company. Automattic is in fact pretty diverse, at least for a tech company. Perhaps what you learned is you really don’t want to work with me? :) Which is fine of course.

Putting Automattic aside for the moment, remote work has many benefits regarding diversity:

  • People see only your output. Most of what I knew of my coworkers was the designs they made, the code they wrote, the blog posts they drafted, and the things they typed or said in conversation. If I had a bias against someone’s age, gender or height, those elements were invisible to me most of the time. Or more powerfully, it was very hard to hold onto bias in the face of unignorable productivity.
  • No one hears your accent when you type. Remote work often hinges on written communication. No one can hear your accent when you are typing. While excellent communication skills become critically important in remote organizations, everyones typed words read the same.
  • You often discover people’s appearances only after you’ve worked with themIt’s common in remote organizations to spend weeks or months working with someone before you meet them in person. By the time you do, your opinion of them is based on their performance, unbiased by any biases you have.
  • Remote workers can be hired from anywhere. Since no relocation is required, anyone can be an employee. If people can work from home or a coffeeshop, they could also work in China or Portugal. Hiring employees from other countries doesn’t guarantee diversity, but it raises the odds significantly, certainly along geographic and cultural diversity lines.

Of course hiring remote workers doesn’t guarantee diversity unless the hiring process minimizes bias.

Specific to Automattic:

  • On gender diversity, When they were @ 180 employees, they had 39 female employees, ~21%. (They’re closer to 250 now).
  • On age: I was a generation older than most of my team and still not the oldest employee there
  • Because they hire by trial, a candidate’s performance is the primary criteria, minimizing the potential for discrimination
  • They have employees in over 120 cities, and 30 countries (you can see a map here)automattic_map

In the section of  The Year Without Pants on Results vs. Tradition I strongly make the case that superficials like how we dress, or who works late, are distractions, but I should have driven the point home harder that remote work helps reduce gender, age and other biases, since you see far more of a coworkers output than their outward appearances.

There’s a Free Webinar on Remote Work & The Year Without Pants on 3/27: Register here.

13 Responses to “How Remote Work Improves Diversity”

  1. Phil Simon

    <i?No one hears your accent when you type.

    Brilliant…and I love the graphic.

  2. Lois

    When I’ve worked remotely, I’ve used Skype, and that does mean you see what people look like (and in unflattering light with poor videography). So all these supposed advantages disappear, and the image you have is of someone interacting in what is not a very natural medium for many of us.

    1. Scott

      Of course it’s not for everyone, but personal preferences is part of the challenge of any workplace.

      Many people find a one hour commute to work objectionable. Others are fine with it. Some people like the late shift, some people don’t. There is no single way of working that accommodates everyone.

      Whatever superficial biases might happen on Skype, they have to be smaller than the superficial biases that happen in an office – the poor quality video makes everyone look bad, as you say. If you find it unnatural that’s totally understandable, but as to my point about commutes and late shifts, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything about the tool or method (it might, but it also might be an artifact of your personal preferences).

      More to the point of the book, any bad manager can inject unfair bias anywhere no matter what the policies or technologies are. By counterpoint, a good manager who simply wants the best performance from workers regardless of how old they are or what planet they’re from, can find ways to minimize unfair bias and create environments where people know all they have to do is a good job.

      1. Lois

        I think it’s easier to be natural interacting in person. It’s not a huge deal, and I don’t mean to imply that, but speaking to someone on Skype is not the same as speaking to them in person (to state the obvious). And if the workplace culture relies on Skype (and directories with pictures, and so forth), then any advantages that a distributed workplace has against looks-ism, sexism, and ageism are going to be obliterated.

    1. Lois

      That was often true in the 1990s (“On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog”), but nowadays not as much. (Yes, it’s definitely still possible on a forum like Reddit, presuming you avoid self-disclosure, but not very likely in a remote workplace.)

      1. Scott

        Jokes aside I’m ambivalent about anonymity – it has many tradeoffs and whether it helps or hurts depends heavily on the specific situation.

  3. Jess

    The thought of being able to remove bias when working with someone is an amazing and often overlooked factor of a distributed workforce. I work with a company that claims to celebrate diversity and inclusion yet falls prey to almost all stereotypes in a workforce. ‘He speaks with an accent therefore he can’t possibly understand customer in this project.’ ‘She wears jeans and flipflops – they will never give her more responsibility dressed like that.’ ‘Her kids are almost out of college so she’ll retire soon and doesn’t care about a career.’ ‘He is 40 and still in a cube farm – he must not have potential.’

    It should also be considered that forcing those with social phobias, anxiety, introverts, extroverts, etc into a working space together and then forcing them to work within the same set of vanilla rules just might not give you the level of performance that you are hoping for.

    I just don’t understand how companies can’t at least acknowledge the benefit to allowing a custom working environment – whether it be offering alternative working arrangements or just opening up a conference room for co-working in a different space in the same building.

    me. not technical but wants to be. in love with not being judged. likes to work alone but needs to feel like part of a team. sometimes doesn’t want to put on pants.

    1. Scott

      Jess: I agree with you. It’s amazing and frightening to hear from managers who won’t even try some of these things or allow good employees to try them. I can understand being skeptical, but not willing to try? That implies to me there’s fear of losing control. It might be an irrational fear (as any boss still has all the same powers to reward/penalize employees) but it’s real.

  4. Giacomo Vacca

    I’m lucky enough to work in an environment that encourages working from home, and with teams 5-6 time zones apart. There are weeks it’s more likely that I collaborate with remote coworkers than the ones at the office.
    I’ve learned a lot so far, about traditions and habits of other countries, and gained a perspective that I genuinely value.
    An analogous remark applies for working with people of different age groups, even one generation apart.
    Unfortunately I can’t say the same for what concerns gender distribution, but my feeling is that it’s more a consequence of the market force distribution than the company’s hiring strategy.

    All this said, something that bothers me is that generally people tend to overlook written communication, and use IM excessively informally and email too superficially.
    This can generate a feeling of distance that only actual personal meetings contrast.
    In other words, there’s the risk of forgetting that on the other side there’s a coworker and confuse the communication means (e.g. a skype client) with the interlocutor.

    I try to follow this simple rule: “If you wouldn’t say that in a face to face meeting, it’s not appropriate to write it”.

  5. Christopher Carey

    It seems to me that the focus on Diversity misses what is the real positive benefit, as measured by the bullet points. Whether discussing remote work, or any other form of collaboration, what is identified as being positive and desirable is *quality* and *merit*. The argument that what somebody wears, the presence of an accent, somebody age, gender, or sexual orientation being irrelevant to their ability to accomplish the task at hand is not about diversity, it is about those attribute (e.g. knowledge, discipline, focus, creative thought, etc.) that *are* critical, *in anyone*, who can constructively participate in a successful undertaking. This seems to be the point of other posts about “culture” being so essential; whether the group of people is “diverse” or not (in the ways we currently define diverse, i.e. race, gender, etc.), the most significant driver of success is where there is commonality, but commonality not in race, gender, and so on, be commonality with respect of a set of values, the culture, that promote success.

    Am I misunderstanding your post?



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