“The first step is education; we need to help people identify and understand their biases so that they can start to combat them. So we developed a workshop, Unconscious Bias @ Work, in which more than 26,000 Googlers have taken part. And it’s made an impact: Participants were significantly more aware, had greater understanding, and were more motivated to overcome bias.” –Laszlo Bock, SVP, People Operations, Google

“The surprising question we get is: ‘How many people telecommute at Google?’ And our answer is: ‘As few as possible.’ There is something magical about sharing meals, there is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer ‘What do you think of this?'”Google CFO Patrick Pichette discussing telecommuting in Sydney, Australia

If Bias Is the Problem, Overcoming It Is the Solution

Last year Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo LinkedIn and other tech leaders reluctantly released their disappointing diversity numbers.  Since then, Silicon Valley and San Francisco tech companies have searched for solutions. The Ellen Pao discrimination lawsuit intensified the urgency.

It is a good thing that Google bias workshop participants “were significantly more aware, had greater understanding, and were more motivated to overcome bias,” as in the quote above. Good, but far from enough. Bias regarding gender and ethnicity is a part of the problem, a persistent part—but the fundamental challenge to a diverse workforce in Silicon Valley is the designed and reinforced homogeneity of its workplaces. There cannot be diversity and full inclusion, unless one embraces a broad range of differences. It is not only bias.

Beyond Bias, Assumptions About Flexwork are Deeply Held, Public, and Vigorously Defended

Exhibit A in this challenge is collaborative and flexible work. The great uproar over Marissa Mayer’s ban on telecommuting is yesterday’s news. She was portrayed as an out-of-step new CEO who “just didn’t get it.” A former Google leader herself, she was just in step with today’s views of Google and much of the Valley. In one of the most demanding commute corridors in the world, telecommuting remains rare and informal rather than organized and common. The cobbler’s children have no shoes—and flexible ways of working are far from welcome.

What drives this 20th century worldview in the “industry of the future”? Why would the CFO of a company rooted in the Internet and purveying remote work tools rhapsodize about the magic of the water cooler effect? Surely there’s a touch of bias in there. But we would argue that a far deeper problem exists, and a more comprehensive and transformative approach is needed.

Many of us once thought that education, guidance, and modest training would yield a more flexible workplace. Some may consider such an approach adequate for tech companies. But observers of this scene have told us again and again that this 21st-century industry embodies more than a little 20th-century industrial thinking. Much of it is deeply habitual, rules widely assumed by employers and employees. A few assumptions that block differences at work include:

  • Collaboration requires constant co-location
  • Full contribution requires punishing full-time schedules
  • Innovation flourishes only with live interaction
  • Working at home is less productive than in the office
  • Managing congestion trumps facilitating virtual work
  • Offices, highways and fleets don’t add to carbon footprint

Industries of a New Type Seem to Mimic Ideas from the Old Workplace—But With a New Fervor

Companies that have challenged these assumptions in the last two decades have made progress in women’s advancement and ethnic diversity. Offering diverse schedules to different sub-groups—reduced schedules, phased return from leave, compressed schedules, periodic telecommuting, remote work—have opened up the environment. The pressures of tech growth will not allow a two decade runway.

If most of tech held their face-time and all-hands-on-deck views lightly, they might overcome them as a handful of unconscious biases. Raise awareness, call them out, steal their thunder. But these are deep-seated assumptions, often backed up by anecdotal beliefs and the certainty that comes from stunning success in the marketplace. They are inherited from a million businesses that preceded and must be challenged if differences are to be fully welcome.

It Will Take a Frontal Assault on Yesterday’s Assumptions and Today’s Habits to Build Inclusion

We believe that a successful diversification strategy is embodied in the Practices and Habits of Mutual Respect. This intensive approach engages managers and employees in the adoption of a set of behavioral principles and habit-modification processes. It provides the framework for challenging dysfunctional assumption. It focuses employees and managers on actual work, results and productivity rather than rigid schedules and sparkling offices-as-campus.

A Mutual Respect initiative uses four intensive steps to embed inclusive principles and practices:

  • “Diagnose and design groups” to catalog desirable practices
  • Embed collaborative, respectful principles in a working charter
  • Modify existing habits through complementary training of managers, employees
  • Monitor, reinforce agreed-upon habit change regimen

Neutralizing the power of assumptions and modifying disrespectful core habits can help attract, include, and retain a talented and truly diverse workplace. Capable adults thrive in an environment of mutual respect and shared control. It is disrespectful to act like they can only create in a huddle, innovate in the crowd, produce their best after hours of bus rides or commutes, and avoid using the very tools they develop. It is past time to eliminate workplace bias. And vital to undo deeper and destructive assumptions.

photo credit: istockphoto.com