As companies hash out their strategies for bringing employees back to the office, now could mark a critical time for leaders to recognize that remote work may hold the key to unlocking the sometimes elusive goal of diversifying workforces.
Following a memorable year of largely working from home — and, for many, enjoying enhanced collaboration with people and companies from all over the world — the value and enhanced productivity that can be accomplished via this flexible work option have been largely reinforced.
However, many firms across a wide range of industries do not appear significantly closer to accepting that people can live anywhere to do their jobs. In fact, insiders have suggested that a large number of companies — save for online giants like Twitter — seem to favor a slow return to the office, albeit while encouraging flexibility and hybrid schedules.
And, in the case of shoe companies — where designers and merchants may face constraints by an inability to touch and feel materials and products — a need for in-person collaboration is not hard to justify.
But there is a growing mountain of thought leadership indicating footwear brands should seriously consider virtual workers as a core part of their diversity strategies. Following the last year’s test case, it’s a “no-brainer” to prioritize remote workers, and it’s an uninspired attitude not to have a remote option, if hiring people from underrepresented communities — and retaining them — is a priority, said Liz Connelly, a New York-based talent and brand consultant at Liz Connelly LLC.
“This pandemic has provided an opportunity for everyone to do recruitment differently. If you go back to the way you were doing it, you are ignoring the problem,” said Connelly. “You’re not thinking about the diverse talent you’re trying to hire, you’re thinking about yourself.”
Companies will see different results if they take this opportunity to shift their values and reach outside of their bubbles and typical ways of thinking. Now, brands should be asking themselves: “How do we use remote work to empower the best talent to be their best?” Connelly said. “When you’re happy, when you’re healthy, when you have your support system, when you’re valued, when you’re given trust, you’re a top performer.”
Virtual “has worked beautifully,” it’s a modern way to do business, and it’s a testament “to the strength of all workforces that people are really dedicated and they care,” said an employee who works at a large footwear firm. “When companies allow that option, great things can happen. It means that they’re able to pivot to what’s becoming a reality for young people that are entering the workforce and what their expectations are of their employer.”
Unfortunately, though, if companies don’t already have diversity at the leadership level, there likely aren’t enough people to advocate for why a shift to remote work could work to improve diversity, added Cheresse Thornhill, chief creative consultant at No Shoes Creative LLC. One huge component, trust, has been tested this year, so it’s clear accountability metrics can also evolve not to require seeing people physically sitting at their desks to have managers know they are doing their job, she said.
“The companies that are able to pivot quicker are going to be the ones that are going to be able to take advantage of capturing more diverse talent,” Thornhill said.
Historically Key Footwear Cities
Overall, there is a traditional expectation that if you work in footwear, you will move jobs somewhat regularly, largely dependent on professional level. As a result, people are often faced with the prospect of integrating into a new city. But does it have to be this way forever?
“If it’s not Portland or Boston, it has to be L.A. or New York,” said Jazerai Allen-Lord, a frequent collaborator with Boston-based Reebok and co-founder of True to Size, a brand strategy agency. “You have to be in one of these four cities in order for your career to ever go to the next level. So it’s a common story you have to be comfortable with very early on that often has a lot of mental health implications.”
In other words, it’s a lot to ask people to leave a city where they have roots and support to go to a community that is less diverse, where the workforce largely doesn’t represent people of color, and with the potential to know fewer people outside of work. Going home to a support system made up of your household but also your direct neighborhood where you feel comfortable is important, particularly after work days that can be filled with microaggressions and oppression, noted Connelly.
For Allen-Lord, who lives in the New York area, most of her clients are in Boston, and, pre-pandemic, she would make day trips there via the train for work. Now, Allen-Lord said she is actively being recruited by a company on one of the coasts that wants her to move there rather than allow a remote option. Allen-Lord said she would not consider moving her life and her family.
“We just shifted an entire culture to learn how to live like we’re living right now, but then to deal with the issues that we deal with specifically as Black women on top of all those other things, work with a business reintegrating back into the real world, that doesn’t sound like a good time to me,” Allen-Lord said. “No amount of money would make that OK for me to make that type of move.”
Remote to Start?
In their networks, Thornhill and Connelly said they have seen people take new jobs located in some of the coast cities like Boston and Portland, Ore., during the pandemic because the jobs are remote now.
These people may even eventually move to these cities, if they are required. Some, though, may quit if faced with moving because they are not interested in moving to historically unwelcoming areas.
“Yes, maybe some people will move. But I’ll tell you: They won’t stay,” predicted Thornhill, who expects retention rates among the BIPOC community working in footwear to fall if there isn’t more of a shift to a remote option.
From a company perspective, however, it can be a risk, financially and otherwise, to onboard someone remotely only to have them resign months later if they decide not to move to the city where the company is headquartered. The company is left in the lurch with an empty position, if it will not continue to allow remote work, and it has also outlaid money for equipment and benefits, in addition to salary.
For an employee, often testing the waters on company culture is important before a full commitment to a new city can be envisioned. Indeed, many would like to harness the remote world to at least begin their dream careers at companies that actively seek diverse workforces. Milwaukee-based Izzy Lugo is a 27-year-old brand marketer and podcast host who has searched for a marketing role building brands in athletic footwear for five years. Lugo, who is Puerto Rican, said he would happily move to Portland or Boston, for example, but he would like to begin on a remote basis before uprooting his life.
In his experience over the last year of the pandemic applying to jobs, however, he has not found roles where he could begin as a remote employee. Lugo currently works in brand partnerships at Yellowbrick and recently completed a certificate in sneaker essentials from the Fashion Institute of Technology.
“I don’t know where the disconnect is,” said Lugo, who ran his own marketing agency until last September. Lugo said he sometimes senses discrimination in the job hiring process: “It’s like you have to be part of a club, and I’ve never been a person to be part of this club.”
At New Balance in Boston, Dan Benson, director of talent acquisition, said in an email that the company, which he said has enhanced its diversity, equity and inclusion strategy over the last several months, plans to re-open its offices later this year while keeping an eye toward flexible schedules.
“We recognize the value of in-person connection to our unique company culture as well as the benefits of a more flexible work schedule as demonstrated during the pandemic,” Benson said. “The current remote work situation allows us to have greater flexibility with candidates on their relocation timeline as we plan for our office re-opening later this year.”
An internal team is looking at how the company will “best apply our learnings from the past year against our varied business and specific job requirements,” he added. “One priority focus area is our candidate recruitment process and proactively attracting and hiring a more diverse talent pipeline.”
Challenging the Status Quo
Workforces should generally be about as diverse as the city they are based in, said Kaleem Clarkson, chief operating officer of Blend Me Inc., an Atlanta-based consultancy that helps businesses improve their remote employee experience. In Boston, about 25% of the population is Black, 20% is Hispanic or Latino, and about 53% is White, according to 2019 Census figures.
“The opening of a remote-first strategy does allow for more diversity because you’re no longer location dependent. You’re no longer forced to hire based on the population that’s around you,” said Clarkson.
Boston, meanwhile, has been known as a racially segregated city with strong racist undertones for generations, and that has long impacted recruitment. Sheena Collier, founder and CEO of Boston While Black, a network for Black professionals and students, called Boston a key example of “brain drain” — people of color come to the city for college or graduate school but then leave a few years later because they don’t feel a connection to the city.
Young designers of color just beginning their professional journeys are aware of the city’s reputation, and when faced with the idea of uprooting their lives and moving to an unwelcoming city because it is required by a dream job, it can be a tough sell.
“Boston’s lack of diversity is not good for recruiting. We need to feel accepted (and safe) not only in the city but the places we work,” said D’Wayne Edwards, founder of Portland-based Pensole Footwear Design Academy, in an email. “Those two things are high on the list.”
If you do not have people in the workplace who look like you, nor are there people in your community who look like you, the sense of being the “other” can be amplified, said Martha Garcia, former director of global brand creative and communications at Hoka One One. Garcia moved from Los Angeles County, where she grew up, to the Goleta, Calif., area where Hoka’s parent company Deckers is based, in 2015. She worked there for over five years.
Garcia said she and her family, as people of color, struggled to find connections in the community and, for her, during work, to make friends. In September, the family moved back to Los Angeles, and Garcia worked for Hoka remotely. She left the brand in January.
These experiences made Garcia see that the status quo must be challenged. “Burnout is real. There’s another layer of burnout that comes when you are a person of color working in a predominantly white environment, and I don’t know that companies really understand that yet,” said Garcia, who is on the leadership team of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition.
Garcia concluded: “The reality is we are now living in a time where we need to hold the tension of the change we are experiencing and make a decision of how we are going to make it better for all — not just the for the ‘all’ that were traditionally in the spaces, but for all the people we are trying to work with.”
Clarks, Reebok, Wolverine Worldwide, and Converse declined to comment for this story. Puma and Deckers Brands did not return requests for comment.