A challenge to leaders: It’s our social and moral duty to adopt a digital-first workplace

Remote work can help heal the frayed fabric of our society

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Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Humanity currently faces its most serious public health catastrophe in a century. The COVID-19 pandemic is a massive threat to our well-being and the global economy. By the time it has run its course, millions of jobs will have been lost, along with — most upsetting of all — more than a million lives.

Much like the 1918 flu pandemic, the COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity for profound change. Without minimizing the health and economic consequences of this pandemic, I would like to recruit your help to make sure that change is for the good.

Just as the 1920s saw a tectonic shift in public health strategy as a result of the pandemic, the 2020s will see a digital transformation of the workplace. I believe that adopting a remote, digital-first workplace can be a catalyst for repairing our damaged social fabric.

For hundreds of years, social, racial and environmental injustices have plagued our world, and they continue to today. Our economic system makes it far too easy to turn a blind eye to environmental consequences or the suffering of marginalized groups in the mad race to the top. Rather than blaming the systems we’ve created, some even choose to blame these groups directly for the struggles they face:

  • unequal access to education,

As organizations examine the benefits of remote work, they tend to focus more on their company’s business trajectory than on other benefits to society. Indeed, access to better talent, lower real estate costs, and more competitive recruiting are all important benefits. But we must stop thinking of remote work in terms of how it affects the bottom line. We must instead think of it as our social and moral duty — as a step towards sustainable development and reconciliation with the most vulnerable in our society.

The following is what we can expect when companies prioritize a digital-first workplace.

Accelerated diversity and inclusion goals

In 2014, Silicon Valley began disclosing workforce demographics. These consisted overwhelmingly of white or Asian men. After five years of reports on diversity in the tech industry, little has changed. A variety of human and systemic factors — such as racial discrimination and unequal access to education — contribute to this lack of progress, but location does too. According to the 2018 United States Census Bureau, only 2 percent of Silicon Valley’s population were Black. Unfortunately, little progress will be made within the next five years if companies continue recruiting solely from the local talent pool, or requiring far-flung talent to move to a tech hub and pay a higher cost of living.

This issue certainly isn’t unique to Silicon Valley. It’s very likely that your own workplace has been hostile to different groups in ways you probably haven’t even noticed, either through:

  • microaggressions,

While it’s not the cure, remote work can be what’s needed to take a dramatic step forward in meeting our diversity and inclusion goals. According to Ohio State University’s Cindy Clouner, “Organizations utilizing virtual teams find that the decentralized nature of these teams lend themselves to increased diversity.”

Improved access to and affordability of higher education

When we adopt digital-first workplaces, we are also witnessing a grand demonstration of a digital-first higher education system. Until now, it has been extremely costly to obtain a higher education if you don’t live in a city. If you live in a city, you can at least go to a local college or university while living at home, but if you live in a rural town, going to college or university results in disruption and greater expenses.

The economic outcomes for rural communities are already less than those of cities. But we compound this issue by forcing rural students to spend more money to attend a college or university. And this leads to a brain drain because graduates often don’t return to their small town. Digital-first higher education could change the game for rural students facing difficult choices.

Reversed brain drain

Brain drain remains a significant issue in Canada. Among recent software engineering graduates from the University of Waterloo, University of British Columbia, and University of Toronto, 65 percent have left Canada to work in the U.S. When these graduates take jobs in the U.S., they pay their taxes and spend their salaries there, as well. This perpetuates a major funding problem for education in Canada.

Percentage of recent graduates that went to the U.S. based on report from Spicer, Olmstead and Goodman
Percentage of recent graduates that went to the U.S. based on report from Spicer, Olmstead and Goodman

But if you think this is a problem in Canada, just imagine the scale of this issue in countries like the Philippines and India. I have the utmost respect for all immigrants who leave their home and take enormous risks to achieve their career goals. This requires incredible optimism and appetite for risk. But wouldn’t it be amazing if those same career opportunities were available without forcing people to leave their family, friends, and social supports behind?

Remote work can help reverse this trend by creating opportunities on the global stage for talent to remain in their home country. Developing talent locally in this way creates an ecosystem where that talent can then start up the next generation of companies without moving to another country or even city. With more remote work opportunities, the brain drain trend can also be reversed between rural and urban centers.

Accelerated international economic development

Economic development in countries such as India — the third-largest startup hub in the world — has accelerated thanks to large enterprises outsourcing business functions, or contracting work abroad. The talent initially recruited to work for these large enterprises have been developed locally and now have the right experience to launch their own, local startups. We’ll likely see a similar example of this accelerated international economic development in countries such as Nigeria, the fourth-largest English-speaking country in the world that shares a time zone with the U.K. I hope that remote work will open the door to more of these opportunities and reduce income disparity for these countries, resulting in a net positive for the entire globe.

Progress towards a desexualized workplace

There has been a marked decline in the number of women in computing occupations. This has persisted throughout most of my career, despite a lot of people — including me — trying to reverse those trends (see chart below). With a turnover rate more than twice as high for women (41 percent) versus men (17 percent) in the tech industry, not only are fewer women taking science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) programs, but fewer women remain in tech field roles after pursuing a STEM degree.

Percentage of computing occupations held by women has been declining since 1991
Percentage of computing occupations held by women has been declining since 1991
(©NCWIT. Bureau of Labor, 2016.)

This gender gap can largely be attributed to the culture in many tech workplaces, where harassment or inappropriate behaviour has run rampant, and the #metoo movement has brought these issues into sharp relief. To combat this, organizations have implemented various gender equality initiatives that aim to change the culture and make the office a more welcoming place for women and non-binary people. Remote work can be a part of an overall strategy to create a desexualized workplace.

Improved environmental sustainability

In the six months or so since the pandemic-driven remote work explosion, remote work has taken an enormous amount of pressure off the environment, including significant drops in carbon generation. According to a New Zealand-based study, if one in five people worked from home just one day per week, it would save 84,000 tonnes of carbon emissions each year in New Zealand alone. That’s the equivalent of taking 35,000 cars off the road — permanently. More recently, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the San Francisco Bay Area voted to move forward with a plan to mandate large employers in the Bay area to keep 60 percent of their workers home each workday to fight climate change. Shopify will also use its new remote work policy to calculate their digital footprint and compare it with their office-based emissions. Remote work is so important to the sustainability cause, Tehama’s first round of venture capital funding included an investment from Business Development of Canada’s Industrial and Clean Energy Fund. As more companies adopt a digital-first approach to work, whether by choice or by law, we can create the conditions for a sustainable recovery.

Economic empowerment and job creation in Indigenous communities

With SpaceX’s Starlink project already launched, and Telesat launching in early 2022, low-latency, high-bandwidth internet will soon be available everywhere in the world. This is timely and exciting news because equal access to economic opportunities depends on affordable and reliable internet being available to everyone, everywhere.

I believe this investment is a necessary step toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada, where unreliable and expensive internet access is a standard for many communities. Canada’s tragic history of taking Indigenous children from their homes and placing them in residential schools remains a reality in some form today: If a youth in an Indigenous community wants a quality education or career trajectory, they usually need to leave home.

But what if remote work was part of a solution? This is the idea of Bobbie Racette, StartUp Canada’s Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year in 2019, and an entrepreneur I admire. Bobbie created Virtual Gurus, whose mission is to find freelance remote work for people in marginalized groups.

When an Indigenous person can access a quality education and career within their community, and spend their salary in that community, outcomes can rapidly improve. We should campaign for all larger enterprises and governments to join together and systematically create jobs in Indigenous communities, just as we celebrate when General Motors creates 3,000 jobs in a community. I shared my thoughts on this topic in more depth in a recent article published in the Globe and Mail.

Finally, I’d like to draw your attention to the UN’s 17 Goals to Transform our World. If we organize the right way (and by “we,” I mean each of us) and begin seeing remote work as key to meeting these goals, we can create a better future for everyone. To be sure, adopting digital-first workplaces will not be without challenges related to morale, engagement and security. But we have a social and moral obligation to prioritize this worthy cause above all else.

If you are in agreement, please share this call to action with your colleagues and social networks and I encourage you to join the Digital by Default LinkedIn Community.

Remote work can help advance the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals
Remote work can help advance the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals
The UN created these 17 Sustainable Development Goals (also known as Global Goals or SDGs) in 2015.

Paul Vallée is the founder and CEO of Tehama and a serial entrepreneur who has spent his career at the forefront of cutting-edge technologies that enable the exchange of work over the internet. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter: @paulvallee.

Paul Vallée is the founder and CEO of Tehama and a serial entrepreneur who has spent his career at the forefront of cutting-edge tech that enables remote work.

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