Fostering Inclusion in an Extreme Remote Work Environment

Miriam Lewis,
Chief Inclusion Officer, Principal Financial Group
Proprietary and copyright; Diversity Business Review, A P&L Group Brand.


The COVID-19 pandemic profoundly accelerated the trend in utilization of remote work in the U.S., an abrupt transition that presented challenges for employers and employees. This paper discusses the challenges associated with creating and maintaining an inclusive work environment during a time of uncertainty and transition—a period the author refers to as an “extreme remote work”—and discusses the longer-term implications for inclusion efforts in organizations where work is done outside the traditional office setting. The paper draws on the research and observations of Principal®, a global financial services company with over 17,000 employees, and analyzes the findings reported publicly by other organizations. We conclude corporate inclusion efforts are equally, if not more, important in the extreme remote work and “normal” remote work environments. Employees working remotely have a strong desire to remain engaged with their employer, and they benefit from initiatives to foster professional networking and development. The needs of employees have shifted during the pandemic and will continue to shift, and employers must adapt accordingly to tap into competitive advantages offered by effective utilization of remote work.

Fostering Inclusion in an Extreme Remote Work Environment

Inclusive organizations strive to provide a respectful working environment where all employees feel welcomed and have an opportunity to thrive. Once synonymous with ‘office environment,’ the idea of a working environment has been shifting for decades as companies expand their global footprint and more employees do their work outside of a traditional office setting. 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly accelerated the trend in remote work, stretching it to limits beyond what many companies thought their workforces could accommodate. Millions of workers were hurled into an unexpected remote work environment, with employees experiencing the stress and financial hardship of a pandemic; a lack of access to normal support systems like school and childcare; the cancellation of vacation plans and public entertainment options; and other factors that complicate the effectiveness of a virtual work environment; thus making it an extreme remote work environment.

This radical change of environment influences the way employees’ network, collaborate, innovate, and engage in professional development. Companies must continue to adapt to the current work environment, and plan for maintaining a culture of inclusion in a traditional – but greatly expanded – remote work environment once the pandemic ends. 

Rise of extreme remote work

Remote work has been on the rise for years, but never at the speed or scale ushered in by the pandemic. In 2016, about 22% of American workers (and 43% of American workers with advanced degrees) said they worked from home at least some of the time (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017). By late April 2020, 63% of American workers said they had worked from home at some point during the pandemic (Gallup, 2020).

For many companies, the transition was all-encompassing. At Principal , more than 95% of the organization’s global workforce was working from home as of March – a transition that largely occurred over just three days. Most of those 17,000 employees, located in 25 nations and territories, have not set foot in an office environment since.

Senior leaders at Principal and elsewhere were understandably concerned about the potential impact of the transition on employee morale and sense of inclusion, productivity, and ability to continue serving the customer. As the weeks and months passed, early indications were encouraging – productivity remained roughly the same or, in some cases, even increased as employees demonstrated significant resilience. 

In a survey of our global workforce in July 2020, 9 out of 10 respondents said Principal continued to serve customers well. Internally, this statistic speaks to our laser-focus on continuity of service, while also testifying to prior investments in people, processes, and technology that help us adapt to change. But the effectiveness of remote work here at Principal tracks more broadly with findings from Gallup, released prior to the pandemic, that “remote work not only improves outcomes and employee branding but is a policy that the most talented employees desire.” 

But it is unclear whether productivity and job satisfaction will persist as the extreme remote work environment continues. Although many companies have been impressed by the resilience and productivity of their employees during these early months, some cracks in the model are beginning to surface, including:

  • Employee burnout.
  • High stress and low morale, especially among certain areas of the workforce.
  • Challenges on-boarding new employees.

These challenges may increase as the current remote work environment continues. And even after the pandemic subsides, the work that companies do today will help to prepare them for any future crises that threaten the support systems for their employees. Most experts agree that the post-pandemic “new normal” will include far more remote work than we saw at any time prior to the crisis. 

Inclusion during this crisis: what we’ve learned so far

As a company with a strong commitment to inclusion, Principal has adapted many of our initiatives to support employee engagement and retention during this unprecedented time. We’ve also stepped up our communications with employees, adopting tools that allow us to survey the workforce more frequently, track responses in real-time, and tailor our responses accordingly. 

While it’s too early to know definitively whether our efforts have had an impact on retention rates (Principal has over 17,000 employees in offices in 25 global locations), we have seen an increase in employee engagement and satisfaction, and we have learned several lessons about how to support employees in the virtual work environment.

Employees who are working remotely want to be engaged.

Although we’re all going through this crisis together, social distancing measures have us feeling farther apart both physically and socially. Diversity & Inclusion teams can play an important role in sustaining community and helping employees adjust to the current reality. At Principal, we’ve traditionally hosted a number of cultural celebrations, courageous conversations, and other employee events that promote awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the value of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. These events have usually been held at one of our office locations, with employees in other global locations able to engage via live video feed, video recording, intranet articles, and other digital solutions. 

With the onset of the pandemic, we pivoted to a series of virtual events—on inclusion topics such as mental health awareness, race and social equality, and LGBTQ+ rights. One example is our Courageous Conversation following George Floyd’s death, initiating good conversation and employee response, including this anonymous employee survey response:

“This was the best event I have attended at Principal in 5 years. If we want to remain relevant to our customers, employees and partners we NEED to continue to have these kinds of conversations, and truly take them to heart.”

We also broadened our outreach about these events: we extended invites to all our employees worldwide, rather than promoting events primarily through our Employee Resource Groups. Our senior leaders readily engaged as presenters and were actively involved in promotion.

Overall participation in these events increased more than 500% over the prior year, with over 96% of attendees saying they learned something new, and more than 85% saying they would recommend the sessions to others. In addition to the changed marketing approach, we attribute the increase in employee participation to the need people have for an outlet to listen, learn and share their opinions; a way to feel heard and included. The lesson here is that employees want to be involved just as much, or perhaps even more, when working remotely and especially in an extreme remote work environment, as when working in an office environment. 

Employees need opportunities to collaborate and learn from one another.

In the midst of the pandemic, Principal decided to stay the course with a major inclusion initiative that we’d been planning for months: a Global Mentoring Program. This 10-month program is open to all 17,000 of our employees around the world and represents a major step in formalizing and expanding our mentorship programming at Principal. Since launch in July 2020, more than 2,000 employees are participating in the program, representing 12% of our global workforce. Numerous studies indicate the importance of mentorship and intercultural collaboration in fostering employee growth, business innovation, and heightened company performance. In a virtual/remote work environment, the program has an added benefit of helping to alleviate feelings of social isolation.

We’ve also implemented unconscious bias training. These sessions are particularly valuable in an extreme remote work environment, mainly because our leaders are facilitating dialogue with employees and implementing practices to mitigate bias. We are checking our assumptions, working more inclusively and ultimately, making better decisions.   

The extreme virtual environment increased the number of employees needing support. 

The current environment highlights employee groups that may need extra support at this time, including people living alone; single parents; working parents; people with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses; people with barriers of language or technology; or people with disabilities. Even social extroverts may be at risk, as the office environment was an important opportunity for social interaction.

At Principal, about 40% of our employees have school-aged children – a revealing data point, as parents around the world navigate the challenges of teaching their children or getting their kids back into schools.  Some of our employees fell into the category of essential workers. Everyone was impacted no matter your background or experiences so identifying those key stakeholder groups has enabled us to listen more intently, ask more focused questions, and make tailored adjustments to policy and practice, mainly enabling more flexibility.

Next steps and pivoting post-pandemic

As the work environment changes, so must our strategies for fostering inclusion within our organizations.  We’re committed to accountability in these efforts and by tracking our progress, we can ensure appropriate attention and resources behind the policies and actions with the greatest potential to make a difference. Our initial experiences at Principal suggest that employees are ready to dive in – to remain engaged, to learn and grow, to collaborate across borders and boundaries. What they need is for their leaders to listen, to adapt, to model flexibility.

We surveyed our global workforce in mid-August, and across-the-board improvements in every area that we measure for our engagement index. As compared to the same time in 2019:

  • We had a 13-percentage point increase in employees who said they are extremely satisfied with Principal as a place to work (86% in 2020 vs. 73% in 2019).
  • We saw a nine-percentage point increase in employees who would recommend Principal as a great place to work (85% vs. 76%). 
  • We had a six-percentage point increase in employees who would stay at Principal if offered a similar position with comparable pay and benefits, at another company (75% vs. 69%).
  • 87 percent said they were proud to work at Principal, an increase of five percentage points over 2019 (87% vs. 82%).

Additionally, we asked employees an open-ended question: “What matters most in keeping you engaged at work every day?” Then we shared the responses with fellow respondents and allowed them to vote on the responses with which they agreed. We received 12,500 responses and employees cast 78,500 votes to prioritize those responses. The top themes that emerged were:

  • flexibility
  • having a great leader and team
  • feeling trusted, valued and respected
  • having the opportunity to do challenging and meaningful work.  

These responses, we believe, outline a roadmap for inclusion in the workforce today and of the future. Companies that successfully navigate this transition from the pre-pandemic “normal,” to extreme remote work, to a future that is almost certainly marked by a more sizable remote workforce, will have competitive advantages:  greater ability to collaborate and move projects forward; a larger and more diverse talent pipeline, less bound by geographic considerations; more satisfied employees, who have greater flexibility to balance their personal and professional lives; and a workforce that collaborates across geographic, cultural, and organizational borders. 

Miriam Harris Lewis is chief inclusion officer at Principal Financial Group®. In that role, she has global responsibility for designing, leading and implementing strategies that foster a more inclusive workplace, increase employee performance, drive better outcomes for customers, and ultimately improve business results.


Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily. (2017, June). On days they worked, 22 percent of employed did some or all of their work at home in 2016. Retrieved December 15, 2020, from

Gallup. Adam Hickman, Ph.D., and Lydia Saad. (2020, May). Reviewing remote work in the U.S. under COVID-19. Retrieved December 15, 2020, from