COVID-19 disrupted nearly every aspect of modern work, from where and how we get things done to the tools we use to collaborate. While some forms of work continued in-person – and in many cases, demanded longer hours in more precarious conditions – remote and hybrid working models proliferated across knowledge-based industries.
Research shows that the burden of maintaining any kind of societal continuity during the pandemic – from providing public health and transportation services to maintaining the flow of basic goods to consumers – fell disproportionately on people of color, women and immigrants. What’s perhaps less clear is how remote workers have experienced diversity, equity and inclusion in their new work environments.
Understanding how remote and hybrid work impacts the employee experience presents challenges and opportunities as many organizations begin to imagine a new future of work. The challenge lies in grasping the complex outcomes of the swift and complete transformation achieved during the pandemic; the opportunity lies in determining how new work environments can be built on a foundation of progress.
Here are four key considerations that should be top-of-mind for organizations operating in remote or hybrid environments.
1. Remote work benefits aren’t equal
While some workers quickly embraced the flexibility of remote work, a great many others were met with an overwhelming set of responsibilities – including child and elder care, homeschooling and expanding workloads.
The burden of domestic responsibilities weighed heaviest on women. In 2020, women exited the workforce in record numbers, a move that’s largely attributed to their outsized caregiving role at home. The economic impact – on women’s careers, the gender pay gap and net household income – cannot be underestimated. The emotional fallout, especially for minorities and single parents whose jobs were deemed essential, is greater still.
For organizations looking to support employees working in a wide variety of circumstances, flexible working models – in which staff are empowered to choose when they work from a physical office – could be a good solution. For others, gathering critical data on employee sentiment and preferences should be part of return-to-office policy decision-making.
2: Microaggressions are different
To a certain extent, the microaggressions – the (often subtle) expression of bias against marginalized groups that leave their victims feeling uncomfortable or insulted – endured by people of color have been minimized by remote work. In some cases, this means not being mistaken for a colleague of the same race or having your hairstyle remarked on or touched unsolicited.
However, not being face-to-face hasn’t eliminated their experience of workplace racism – nor has it necessarily ushered in new, more progressive views on the subject.
Shifting, however permanently, to remote and hybrid working models can only shape equitable, inclusive experiences if organizations work hard to prevent old and insensitive ways of working from taking hold. In addition, organizations need to consider how video and teleconferencing can exacerbate experiences of discrimination for minority groups by permitting their work lives to encroach, more intrusively, onto their private ones.
3: Proximity bias rises
Many kinds of bias thrive just as effectively in a remote working environment – notably, our expedience bias toward those closest in proximity and affinity to us. The myth that remote work has been a universal equalizer, affording everyone the same opportunities to connect with their teams and leadership, needs to be challenged.
By fostering a culture of empathy and providing opportunities for employees to connect with colleagues and senior leadership beyond their immediate team—including through employee resource groups and interdepartmental mentoring programs—organizations can mitigate continued discrimination against minorities and the creation of a new “Other” who works remotely some or all of the time.
4: Culture changes
Our systems of work – including how we meet, share ideas and measure performance – are not built to ensure equitable remote and hybrid working models. In themselves, tools like Google Meet and Zoom do not foster fair, inclusive discussion: giving everyone a similarly scaled video tile and ‘raise hand’ button doesn’t prevent voices and perspectives from being overlooked.
An inclusive, equitable company culture is shaped by awareness, education and appreciation for a wide and diverse spectrum of communication styles, and organizations need to consider whether and how remote and hybrid environments are encouraging or inhibiting positive employee experiences.
Organizations need to look closely at how virtual meetings are run, collaboration is fostered and new performance management models are designed to address the nuances of remote and hybrid work. To do this, organizations need data on how these new processes are impacting inclusivity and career progression, as well as goals that factor in employee experience alongside business growth.
Act on the future of work
Experience shows that, unlike transforming the systems used to facilitate work, changing workplace culture is difficult. Remote and hybrid working models are not themselves answers to issues in workplace culture. They’re inflection points for considering important questions about whether the ways we work are diverse, equitable and inclusive.
What we do now matters, especially as the increasingly global nature of work expands our professional communities across time zones and borders. To get it right in the context of remote and hybrid work, we must first understand the inherent challenges and potential outcomes for all kinds of workers and push ourselves to think more critically about how we connect with each other.