Don’t Lose the Democratizing Effect of Remote Work – Harvard Business Review

People are calling it “the big quit.” Employees are leaving workplaces that don’t suit their needs anymore, as more and more organizations return to in-person work after more than a year of working remotely. Half of workers now report that they will not return to jobs that do not offer remote work.

The good news for employees is that 90% of large companies are embracing the hybrid model, which combines on-site work with remote work, according to a recent McKinsey survey of 100 executives at large organizations. The not-so-good news is that mishandling the transition to hybrid work threatens to reinforce social inequalities and jeopardize companies’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

This article will describe the risks inherent in mishandling the transition and offer suggestions for avoiding them. Joan is a pioneer in the development of policies that promote workplace flexibility and studies their relationship to bias. Rachel Korn and Mikayla Boginsky helped launch Bias Interrupters, a website geared toward reducing racial and gender bias in organizations.

Lower-Level Employees Are Penalized

A silver lining of the pandemic was the democratization of access to remote work. Before the pandemic, remote work was typically limited to highly paid professionals. But during the pandemic, we learned that remote work is possible in many lower-ranked jobs: in administrative roles, government jobs, or any desk job or phone job or internet job.

Unfortunately, we hear persistent reports that all too many employers are rescinding the right to remote work for lower-paid employees even as they create “anywhere jobs” for more highly paid employees.

On our helpline, we’ve heard from employees who have worked remotely very successfully for more than a year only to be ordered abruptly back to work. Some have concrete evidence of increased productivity. Creating a new caste system where elites have anywhere jobs and non-elites are shackled to the office full time is a recipe for high attrition among employees who often have a lot of firm-specific knowledge that is valuable to their employers.

Lower-paid workers are much more likely than higher-paid workers to live further from the office in many expensive cities, making for long commutes that make remote work highly desirable. Lower-paid workers also are much less likely to rely on nannies and childcare centers. Instead, many tag-team: Mom works one shift and dad works a different shift. Such families have three to six times the national divorce rate because parents rarely see each other. The opportunity to exchange that extra hour or two of commuting time for family time is surely important to many employees and would foster their loyalty to companies that get this right.

Unintended Racial Effects

In this moment of reckoning, companies are becoming increasingly attuned to unintended racial effects. But among employees who have been working remote, white employees are seven times more likely than Black employees to report being interested in returning to on-site work (21% versus 3%).

A big reason is that Black workers face a more negative in-person workplace environment: When working from home, 64% reported being better able to manage stress, and 50% reported an increase in feelings of belonging at their organization. As a friend told me,“I know the pandemic is awful, but remote work is been silver lining for me. It’s exhausting, having to deal with white people day after day. This is just such a welcome break.” The water cooler is great for some; not others.

Another racial dimension to consider: Although Black and Latinx employees make up approximately 30% of the labor force, they represent 50% of people who left or lost a job in the past month in order to care for children, according to the most recent census household pulse survey.

People of color have also faced much more severe consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans are about three times more likely than white Americans to be hospitalized, and twice as likely to die from Covid-19. For this reason, Black and Latinx parents are less enthusiastic about returning to in-person schooling — and on-site work. If you don’t want to push people of color out of your workforce, be generous with access to remote work.

Driving Women Out

Women have dropped out of the workforce at alarming rates due to the pandemic, causing women’s labor force participation to hit the lowest point since the 1980s. One major cause is childcare: Mothers had to drop out of the workforce due to a lack of consistent childcare during the pandemic.

Of course, permanent remote work will require childcare. But we’re hearing persistent reports of employees being called back into work with only two days’ notice. This leaves no time to arrange for childcare, which may be much more difficult to arrange now than before for the pandemic. Up to 4.5 million childcare slots may have been lost permanently due to the pandemic. This exacerbates an already acute problem: Even before the pandemic, most people in the U.S. lived in childcare deserts (with only one childcare spot available for every three or more children). Even if parents are able to find care, they may not be able to afford it: Costs have risen 40% since the beginning of the pandemic. It only makes sense to give people ample time to set up alternative child — and elder — care arrangements.

Make Sure You’re on the Right Side of the Future of Work

Employers should follow five simple steps to set up a hybrid workplace that ensures historically excluded groups won’t see setbacks:

Step 1: Set your target return date, and give employees plenty of notice.

Make sure to give employees at least 45 days’ notice to prepare for their return. Employees may need to make or revise child or eldercare arrangements, or to request and set up accommodations. Plenty of advance warning also gives employers a chance to make sure they are complying with all safety laws and recommendations, and it gives HR staff time to review accommodation requests. When you have chosen your date, let employees know with a thoughtfully crafted return-to-work announcement where you also share your safety plan.

The shift to remote work has been great for many employees with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act entitles disabled employees to reasonable accommodations that do not impose an undue hardship on their employers. This means that employers that abruptly ordered everyone back to work are likely to get sued. Even if you were not accommodating an employee with a disability before the pandemic, the fact that that person has been working remotely for over a year can serve as evidence that a permanent accommodation does not present an undue hardship to the employer.

Other workers may also have rights to continue remote work. Employees who are pregnant or breastfeeding may be legally entitled to workplace accommodations, too, under federal and/or state laws.

An organization’s abrupt order of all workers back to on-site work also risks a legal challenge if the order has a disproportionate impact on women — and that’s a lot of organizations. The ACLU sued South Carolina alleging exactly that.

Step 3: Create a hybrid model policy that works for your organization.

Start by asking employees what they want. You may be surprised to learn how many employees are unwilling or unable to return to the office full time. Exploring what your workers want — and the barriers they are facing — may lead to a discovery that you can actually deliver many of the things they are looking for and keep you from losing top performers.

Hybrid work (where some employees are remote and some work in-person) is different from having all employees either remote or in-person. There are many different formats to consider:

  • Each employee works some days in the office.
  • Some employees are always remote, while some are always in person.
  • Employees can change work schedules depending on seasonal or external demands.

Think about what the hybrid format you are choosing means for your company and whether you want to have the same format across the organization or leave it up to departments or teams. This may mean you need to reconsider the size and setup of your office.

Step 4: Take action to avoid on-site favoritism.

On-site favoritism is when employees who work on site get more advancement opportunities than employees who don’t. If more women and people of color choose hybrid schedules, and more men and white people choose to be fully on-site, the results are predictable. Research shows that on-site favoritism will predictably happen unless organizations take steps to ensure it doesn’t. Here’s how:

Keep track of who gets career-enhancing assignments. In many organizations, assignments are handled informally today. Research shows that has not worked out well. Even pre-pandemic, 85 to 90% of white men in our studies of a variety of industries reported access to the glamour work, but only 43 to 50% of Black women. Other women and people of color fell in between but, all in all, it’s not a pretty picture.

Our open-access toolkits at www.biasinterrupters.org provide everything you need to keep metrics to see whether your organization has equal access to career-enhancing work. First, it includes a survey to send around to find out who is doing the office housework, undervalued work that makes you a good organizational citizen, but isn’t recognized when it comes time for promotions or performance evaluations. Our pre-pandemic survey found that women were 29% more likely than white men to report having to do office housework. Second, it includes a meeting protocol so that your managers get together to create a typology of what constitutes a career-enhancing work in their department.

Have managers keep track of who is getting the glamour work. Look for patterns to see whether those who work on site are being favored over those who aren’t. While you’re at it, look for demographic patterns, too — alas, you’ll probably find them. If you do, you need to either train your managers to avoid bias, change the system, or both. If you don’t, becoming a hybrid workplace will just reinforce existing racial and gender hierarchies.

Step 5: Rethink meetings.

Meetings with a hybrid team can be tricky. Instead of trying to hold meetings with some employees around a table and others calling in, consider holding meetings as all-remote or all in-person. That way, nobody has the upper hand — and you won’t miss out on hearing insights from your remote workers. If you don’t take any actions, the same problems that would come up for women and people of color in meetings before the pandemic — getting interrupted, getting floor time, or even being invited to the meeting — are likely to be exacerbated for your remote workers.

While you’re at it, pay attention to your meeting schedule. If meetings are taking place in the evenings or at the school drop-off time, that can make it difficult or impossible for parents and caregivers to attend. Consider setting up “core hours” where all team members are expected to be available, and make an effort to schedule meetings during those times. And don’t forget to account for remote employees who may be working in different time zones.

Switching to hybrid work is going to require thoughtful and careful planning, but it’s an opportunity to shape future of work. If employers do things right, they will democratize access to remote work and equalize access to career-enhancing opportunities at their organizations — and they can expect to see better retention of top talent as a result.

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