- Certain fields, jobs, and promotions remain out-of-reach for many and significant racial and gender wage gaps remain the employment reality.
- Where political activism and corporate diversity initiatives have lagged behind, the distributed workforce may be able to make a difference.
- As remote and freelance workforces continue to grow, work is valued above who they are, what they look like, or how much they socialize with others.
- The distributed workforce economy could help create a more talent-driven, skill-focused world.
Activism has helped make huge strides in employment equality since the 1960s, but while things may be better than they used to be, it’s clear we have a long way to go.
There are still significant racial and gender wage gaps and women and racial minorities still hold a small percentage of positions of power, whether it’s in the halls of politics or corporate board rooms. The reality is that certain fields, jobs, and promotions remain out-of-reach for many. Bias, whether conscious or unconscious, as well as entrenched hierarchies make it tough for some people to access opportunities and succeed. Sure there are those who would deny that, but it’s a little like denying climate change. The evidence is there.
The string of revelations in the #MeToo movement have shown just how uncomfortable the office can be for women, as did the news at the end of April about a group of female Nike executives who started a “revolt” after dealing with pervasive sexual harassment and gender discrimination. These recent events have spurred companies of all sizes and across industries to take a close look at their own hiring practices and workplace dynamics, but even then moving the needle can be tough. After Facebook released its workforce diversity numbers last year—women are 35 percent of Facebook's workforce, African-Americans are 3 percent and Hispanics are 5 percent—Facebook's global director of diversity described increasing those numbers as “complicated.”
The playing field is still not level, but perhaps where political activism and corporate diversity initiatives have lagged, another force may be able to make a difference—the distributed workforce.
The Distributed Workforce
A forecast of employment trends by the World Economic Forum called flexible work, including virtual teams, “one of the biggest drivers of transformation” in the workplace. According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, the number of people working remotely four or five days a week rose from 24 percent to 31 percent. The majority of the distributed workforce are contractors and freelancers. There are currently an estimated 53 million freelancers in America, representing one-third of the U.S. workforce, and they could come to make up 50% by 2020.
These are workers who rarely go into a physical office. Most of their interactions, whether they are copywriting or web designing, take place from behind a laptop screen. Some people love to go into an office, thriving on the energy and the interactions, but for many, particularly those who prefer to work remotely, that’s not always the case. Companies, especially those in the tech industry, like to talk a lot about “culture,” but that “culture” may not be comfortable for everyone. How someone is treated or the way their work is valued shouldn’t depend on who they are, what they look like, or how much they socialize with others—it should depend only on what they produce.
The distance that necessarily exists between an employer and a freelancer, both literally and metaphorically distance, means most interactions are closely focused on the task at-hand. How old someone is, whether they are black, white, pink, blue, green, or identify as male, female, transgender, or non-binary shouldn’t matter. In-person, in an office, those factors can and do play a role, as much as we might like to think they don’t. Working remotely allows those things to recede into the background and the work itself to come to the front.
Leveling the playing field
This is not to say that companies should treat their freelancers as faceless workers. Getting to know freelancers or distributed employees is important and informs the working relationship, but the being remote can help remove certain barriers or negative dynamics. Research has found that men do an overwhelming amount (75%) of the talking during the average business meeting. Women, particularly when they are in the minority, can struggle to be heard, much less listened to. A conference call, as opposed to a meeting where one or two women sit around a table with 15 men, can help create a more inclusive conversation.
Corporate hierarchy also plays a role. Lower level people and contractors generally don’t speak up n front of senior people. However, behind a computer screen, more junior workers feel emboldened to share ideas. We did a little experiment internally at Kalo during a brainstorm where people submitted ideas in a chat and the best ones were voted up. In the experiment, we generated random character names for each participant, like “yellow fox,” “purple tiger,” or “pink dragon.” This gave each and every person equal footing and helped the best ideas rise to the top. It nullified the hierarchy or any discriminatory dynamics.
Of course, this was a small company experiment, but it did emphasize the power that distance has to create more equitable working environments. Furthermore, small actions, like removing gender and race signifers from online iconography, take this principle even further.
The distributed workforce has the potential to make the workplace what it should really be about—talent and skills, with pay reflected accordingly. It’s ludicrous that someone with certain skin colors or organs gets paid a different amount of money for the same job. Anything other than a person’s qualifications shouldn't matter. Workers should be able to focus on their “super powers,” on the things they are awesome at. The distributed workforce economy could help create a more talent-driven, skill-focused world. Any product that furthers equality in the workplace—that removes administrative hurdles, enables people to be productive, and encourages equality—that’s a company I’m proud to build.