Civil unrest, systemic racial injustice, political turbulence, and a global pandemic has dramatically altered the way we live, work, socialize, connect, and move about the world. The disparity is mind-bending, and suddenly, unexpectedly, life has upended. And as the prevalence of COVID-19 continues to intensify, the vast majority of companies have embraced long-term remote operations.

They’re throwing away their playbooks, relearning schedules, defining work differently, and collaborating in new ways. Many leaders are discovering that working remotely can help their companies be more agile and even more productive. But there’s another way remote work can be a force for good that doesn’t get enough attention: It can widen our talent pools to be more inclusive and introduce much-needed diversity into our workforce. Now more than ever, it’s imperative to acknowledge and prioritize being present, taking accountability, and doing what we can to make a powerful stand – for equality and the greater good of humanity.

The shadow talent pool

There’s a shadow talent pool out there, a population of motivated, skilled, hard-working individuals for whom the job market is out of reach simply because of circumstances beyond their control—geography, a medical condition, or a spouse’s military job, for example. These individuals have the desire to work, but they lack the means to get to an office each day. By pivoting to a remote work model, you’re essentially opening your workplace to an untapped resource and giving yourself the advantage of hiring based on merit, tenacity, and skill instead of proximity.

Before the pandemic took hold and all non-essential travel was put on pause, my company hosted regular meetups for our employees throughout the U.S., the U.K., and India. These informal get-togethers gave hundreds of remote workers the chance to meet each other in real life, outside of company chat rooms.

I attended many of these gatherings to share company updates and news, hear concerns, and answer the questions that tend to crop up in a distributed work model. Invariably, I’d have someone walk up to me during lunch or a networking session. Sometimes they’d have tears in their eyes, sometimes merely a warm smile. Their message was almost always the same: They wanted to express how being able to work anywhere had changed their lives. 

I’ve heard stories from stay-at-home moms who were reluctant or unable to place their children in daycare to get back into the job market. I’ve heard from military spouses who couldn’t hold a steady job due to frequent moves. I’ve listened to caretakers who needed extra income but couldn’t leave a disabled person home alone. They all came bearing a message of gratitude that they could finally put their skills to use.

Reap the benefits of a diverse workforce

I want to make it very clear: This isn’t some charitable way of giving back to your community. You are going to benefit from hiring them. Pulling from this shadow talent pool, rather than limiting new hires to people within commuting distance, allows you:

  • Access unique skills and experience. Stay-at-home moms re-entering the workforce are some of my best employees. A mom accustomed to managing a household spends her day prioritizing tasks, juggling multiple schedules, settling conflicts, and maximizing her time. Many stay-at-home moms are well-educated women who stepped away from lucrative careers to raise children, but they’re half as likely to get a call-back for a job interview than other candidates. With women-led companies yielding triple the returns of S&P 500 companies, it’s time to examine our misconceptions.

    Military families are another overlooked demographic. I can’t count the number of military spouses who’ve told me that they put their careers second to their partner’s. Statistically, these individuals hold a higher education than their peers yet are chronically underemployed. Working for a company that offers flexible schedules and steady employment has given our employees who are military spouses their power and independence back—and that doesn’t change even if they have to relocate again. 
  • Add diversity to your workforce. A wide array of perspectives is essential for innovation and creativity. Expanding your potential job candidates to include remote employees could empower an underrepresented group of people while providing better insights into the needs of your diverse customer base. 

    Remote work is a natural equalizer. Remember, diversity doesn’t stop at the hiring process. Having a diverse and inclusive workplace means creating a work environment where all voices and opinions are given equal weight. In a remote workplace, where the quality of work trumps time logged in a cubicle, workers are evaluated on what they produce, leaving no room for bias, intentional or otherwise.
  • Overcome your geographical limitations. My company’s main headquarters is located in Portland, Oregon. It’s an expensive city in which to live. In fact, there’s a growing migration to the suburbs as people grow hip to the fact that location isn’t everything. People want affordable homes, and they want to stay closer to their families and hometowns. You’ll see this echoed in other tech-heavy cities, like Seattle or San Francisco. The talent pools in major cities are shrinking, and if you don’t take steps to expand that talent pool, you’re not going to stay competitive. When we were located in an office building, we had a hard time maintaining the staff needed to provide Spanish-language coverage 24/7/365. Once we started to recruit from Texas, everything changed. Not only were we immediately able to fulfill our robust Spanish and bilingual coverage needs, but we also increased our Latinx population at work. 

Remote companies are set up to be more diverse, inclusive, and equitable than traditional co-located offices because of their model. When a company can recruit, hire, and retain the best talent—not the closest—the talent pool is limitless. My company employs hundreds of remote employees who include stay-at-home moms, military spouses, people in rural communities, and people whose health issues keep them from commuting. We’re growing every year, and our customer feedback is overwhelmingly positive. I’m proud of my team; open up your remote workforce, and I guarantee you will be too.