Remote Work and Colonialism

A click-baity title? Who, me?

The topic of diversity recently came up in an event we ran called the Tyk APIM Extravaganza to celebrate the end of the year and the start of the silly season. During that webinar, we discussed (at length) diversity and inclusion and the complexities surrounding it when running a remote first business.

Tyk is multi-cultural and truly global, with a team of about 150 across 26 countries, we’re on every continent except Antarctica. These are not offices, these are where our team lives. We only have three offices: in London, Atlanta, and Singapore, and these are primarily sales offices to ensure we have a spot for meeting clients and receiving mail from the tax-man.

Having such a large remote workforce comes with a unique challenge – and that is: how to ensure our folks feel safe and respected in the workplace without putting them at risk at home.

Here’s the deal: employees increasingly take the values of their employers into account when choosing where to work, or whether to stay at the place they work at – ethics are now an employer USP. If you are an employer that wants to hire and retain the brightest and best, you need to ensure that the values you (as a founder) and you (as a company) are somewhat in-line with those of your employees.

Normally, this isn’t too much of an issue – a company that is office-centric, or remote-but-local (i.e. in a single country) can rely on a something of a monoculture within the border of it’s reach. I’m not saying that all members of the company are a single culture, but they have the baseline norms of the country they are based in to fall back on as a shared cultural experience. Even taking religion, race, sexuality, or gender-identity into account – individuals in the organization have a baseline understanding of how these differences are expressed and responded to within the country they live in, most importantly, this understanding is embedded and mostly unspoken (be that a good or bad interface, it is nonetheless shared).

Now back to a global remote-first company, in these organizations there may be a dominant monoculture – perhaps a western-dominated view of the world if the company was founded in Europe or the Americas) – but this is not a given, it is a trap. In these organizations, culture-shock is almost guaranteed. More importantly, that USP of aligning your values and your founders values, with those of your team becomes a minefield, and could – in more extreme cases – put your staff in danger.

Let me give you some concrete examples: The Kremlin recently passed a bill that made even the expression of LGBTQ identity a crime, in Nigeria – it is a crime punishable for up to 14 years to be in a gay relationship, and in many (not all) Muslim-dominated countries charging interest is seen as a sin, and homosexuality is – you guessed it – illegal – potentially punishable by death.

So, you run an inclusive and progressive company that embraces and celebrates diversity, you’re likely to produce marketing assets (mailers, posters, adverts, t-shirts and related swag) that celebrate and tie-in with certain important events, Pride Month for example. Why? Because to hire the best and brightest you need to advocate for your values instead of trying to remain neutral, that’s the new reality.

If you ask or expected your staff to participate, and your remote staff are in any of the countries I mentioned above – you are putting them in danger.

Think of it this way – remote workers don’t come to you when they come in for work, you go to them. Every home-office is a little outpost of your company – now if your company is a bastion of progressive values – you’ve essentially built a socially-divisive powder keg in someone’s kitchen (or wherever they choose to work).

You see, your staff exist in the cultural context of their surroundings, so if they are surrounded by homophobes, anti-Semites, racists, or people who hate tomatoes, then that is their every day norm. These ideas are unquestioned by their friends, families and peers, and they themselves are subject to judgement by these norms (regardless of their own personal opinion on the matter).

Asking them to behave or interact in any way counter to that is essentially a form of colonization.

That’s a strong statement – but let me be clear: you are imposing your beliefs on another and asking them to behave counter to their culture, in a context that you have no understanding of, without taking their own identity in to account. So all of that projection that might be good for recruitment in one place, is potentially putting someone else in danger.

Now before I get cancelled – as I said at the top of this piece, you must provide your staff a place they can feel safe to belong and to express themselves. That means your workplace must be a place free of bigotry, and it’s your job to call it out and excise it wherever you see it, because you have a duty of care to all of your staff.

To an extent it means that as an employer, you can’t really employ a bunch of bigots or zealots (I mean, this shouldn’t need to be said, but the world in 2022 is a weird place), which is in-and-of-itself a kind of discrimination. So, how do you hire and maintain a culture internationally that doesn’t put your team in danger, or make them feel unsafe?

What happens in this case is that you and your team no longer have that unspoken monocultural shared understanding on how to interface with in-group diverse individuals to fall back on anymore – it’s just not there, the internet doesn’t really have one. In fact, you are now dealing with a multitude of unspoken cultural norms that interacting team members are not aware of unless explicitly stated.

So what’s the solution? Or maybe I’m over-blowing this?

Well, you as a company need to create one, as a founder you need to design and live a culture that can balance conflicting ideas and ensure that everyone that joins buys into it. That does mean a degree of recruiting according to shared values, and of broadcasting those values to ensure applicants that share them are more likely to apply (a pre-selection-bias). And secondly, to be extremely vigilant of individual culture-shock between team members.

This can potentially devolve into lowest-common denominator values, which isn’t ideal, so ultimately you need to build a strong set of simple values, and then allow the company culture to become an emergent property, while keeping a clear and vigilant eye out for culture-shock and miscommunication and leaning into it, and facing it head-on. It’s a little brutal, but it helps enforce a self-sustaining vigilance amongst your team.

It also means that as a company you need to tread carefully when it comes to the ethics of how you do business, with a global workforce, and a global client list, geopolitical issues quickly become staff issues and it’s an extremely tricky problem to tackle. I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t think we have the answer to this – only (I hope) a slightly more subtle understanding of it than most.

The upside of when you get it right though is incredibly rewarding, because you end up working in a melting pot, and are regularly exposed to (and surprised by) new and cool things that your team are up to. It’s not only you either – everyone in your company benefits from a wider view of the world, and that has got to be worth it.