Remote Worker Bias – What Is It and How Can You Prevent It?
There are both up-and-down sides of remote working.
On the positive side, offering remote work options has enabled certain employees (i.e., working mothers) to be able to continue working during the pandemic when they may have had to quit or scale back to a part-time job due to increased personal responsibilities such as assisting with their children’s remote learning. Remote working has also allowed for employees to move to an area with a lower cost of living, or to be closer to family while still being able to keep their job.
Companies have also seen more women and minorities applying for their positions:
- The real estate platform Zillow says more women have applied for its jobs since it announced a year ago that most of its 5,900 employees could work from home permanently.
- The software company Slack, which offered permanent remote positions last year, said that among recent hires the number of minority workers was 50% higher for those who planned to work primarily from home than for those who preferred the office.
Will Remote Workers Get Left Behind in the Hybrid Office?
Companies who choose to offer to some, or all, of their employees the option of working remotely 100% of the time should recognize that this highly valued perk (to some) could also lead to “Remote Worker Bias”.
Though it has yet to be proven that remote workers are at a disadvantage, a recent New York Times article references at least one study led by researchers at Stanford University that suggests that remote workers are less likely to be promoted than their in-office peers. In the experiment, researchers randomly assigned workers at a large travel agency in Shanghai to work remotely or in the office for nine months. The study found that though the remote workers were 13% more productive, putting in more hours and making more calls per minute, they were promoted about half as often as their in-office peers.
“They can get forgotten,” said Nicholas Bloom, one of the study’s authors and a professor of economics at Stanford. The troubling part is that the desire to work remotely isn’t evenly distributed. Dr. Bloom and his team of researchers conducted monthly surveys about remote work from May 2020 through March 2021. They found that, among college-educated parents of young children, women have said they want to work from home full-time around 50% more often than men do.
Therefore, advances that companies have made in recent years from their diversity and inclusion efforts could be thwarted. Over time, bias against remote workers could compound into wider workplace equality problems.
Two Ways to Help Prevent Remote Worker Bias
As with most problems, awareness is the first key to preventing Remote Worker Bias. Here are two ideas that some companies are implementing to create more of an even playing field between their in-office and remote workforce.
Change how you conduct meetings. Instead of having in-office employees gather in a conference room while remote employees dial in, if one person is not in the office, have everyone join the meeting separately from their desktops/laptops, regardless of whether they’re in the office.
Require your executive team and managers to work remotely some of the time, on a consistent schedule. One of the biggest factors that could drive inequality between remote and office-based workers is proximity to company leaders. When executives are themselves working remotely, it lessens the perceived advantage of getting face time with decision-makers in the office. At Slack, executives have agreed to work no more than three days in the office each week. “In terms of setting the example, they are going to be exhibiting flexibility”, says Brian Elliott, who leads the company’s future of work think tank.
Prior to COVID-19, many companies were adamant that remote work decreased productivity because employees couldn’t be trusted to work without a watchful eye on them. However, the pandemic has demonstrated that employees can be successful at home and sometimes even work longer hours compared to working in the office. Research suggests when employees are offered the option for flexible schedules (i.e., compressed workweeks, remote work, choice in hours, etc.) they are more satisfied with their jobs and more committed to the organization.
Every company is different. Although some are requiring all employees to return to the office, it appears that many others will continue to offer their employees options for either a hybrid or entirely remote work schedules. For those that do, it will be important to understand and work to mitigate the factors that may hinder your remote employees’ exposure to company leaders, the ability for promotion opportunities, and overall inclusion and integration with your in-office workforce.
ASA Staffing Today, 8/6/2021, “Will Remote Workers Get Left Behind in the Hybrid Office?”, The New York Times, 8/5/2021, by Sarah Kessler.
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