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A Question of Equity:

Just How Fair Is Remote Work?

When you think of the two-pronged meaning of equity: the value of an asset being one, fair and impartial treatment being the other, it’s striking to realize both apply to the people who work for our organizations. Whether we’re dealing with ten or tens of hundreds, as stewards of our organizations’ human resources our responsibility is to manage the employee life cycle and to make sure the lived employee experience is equitable, inclusive and reflects the communities where we live, where we work, and who we serve.

Often though, the policies and programs we deliver and the managers we support can get caught up in making sure everyone has access to the “same” or “equal” opportunities. But our diverse employee populations have different experiences and different needs.  And the work from home (WFH) model that’s taken hold exposes these differences more than ever.

Remote Work’s Fairness When it Comes to Different Employee Populations

Marginalized minorities: Recent U.S. census data tells us Black households have 20% more people, and Latinx households have 80% more people living under one roof compared to White households. For many, this translates into a lack of space, privacy and quiet. These same populations are three times as likely to know someone who died from COVID-19, which adds to already burdensome mental health and wellbeing stresses.

Further, an April 2020 WayUp survey highlights how low-income students and students of color entering the workforce are “struggling to overcome the WFH digital divide.” Lack of space and limited access to technology are two concerns. Learning the corporate culture, and code-switching (alternating from their own language style or vernacular to a workplace standard) is a close third. To quote Jephtha Prempeh, a recent graduate of color interviewed by CNBC: “Being at home with family and working from a bedroom makes [it] complicated. I do feel self-conscious about if I sound intelligent, but speaking differently and approaching things differently does change my home space, and I can’t shake it off when the day is done. I don’t have that fresh space to come back and be myself.”

ParentsThe fallout associated with school closures intensifies pressure on parents working from home. What does a one-computer family do when one or both parents are working from home and one or more children are learning remotely? Juggling work deadlines with children’s online school lessons can be problematic. For single parents with youngsters needing more hands-on attention, time management becomes an issue too.

Moms: Maybe it’s because traditional gender roles persist, but a new Yale-led study found that moms working remotely spend more time doing their jobs with children present, and are taking on more household responsibilities compared with WFH dads. The study also found that moms working remotely during COVID-19 are suffering emotionally more than men, reporting feeling depressed, anxious, and lonely. This exemplifies studies showing remote work can lead to isolation and stress as divisions between home and work-life blur.

New Hires: One of the biggest hurdles facing new employees hired into a remote working environment is the lack of opportunity to connect with co-workers and managers; the inability to network and develop relationships. And as underrepresented and low-income graduates like Prempeh indicate, young hires often find it difficult to meet the financial and space hurdles associated with at-home office setups.

Just How Fair Is Remote Work - young hires

Remote Work in Terms of Occupational and Geographic Disparity

Issues of equity also come into play in terms of the types of jobs that fit a WFH model. Economists and business professors Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman, assessed more than 800 occupations to determine which ones could be done remotely. Their findings reflect those found in a study focused on Italy, “an interesting case study” the authors write, “because it has been one of the countries most affected by the novel coronavirus and it was the European country with the lowest share of teleworkers before the crisis.”

But even within the same occupations, there are disparities:

  • Geographic locationswith higher levels of internet access, high-quality connectivity, a mix of occupations, and pro-worker policies naturally fare the best. Countries such as Belgium, Canada, and Sweden lead the charge. Developing and middle-income countries (such as Brazil, China, and Nigeria) face the most obstacles, including low internet quality and large, intergenerational families that can make it challenging to work at home.” (Council on Foreign Relations)
  • And for people who work in jobs performing physical activities, spending time standing, maneuvering vehicles and machinery, and doing service-oriented jobs that require dealing with customers in physical proximity, there’s little prospect of working remotely (BBC).
    • For example, physical therapists, dentists, and barbers simply cannot do their work without being extremely close to other people. Flight attendants, waiters, and other personal service providers are similarly constrained, as are many medical professionals
Just How Fair Is Remote Work - Moms

10 Suggestions for Handling Remote Work with Equity

  1. Focus on flexibility. If someone needs to reschedule, adapt with empathy and understanding.
  2. Remove technology barriers. 82% of White adults in the U.S. report owning a desktop or laptop computer compared to 58% of Blacks and 57% of Latinx. Similarly, 79% of White adults report having broadband internet compared to 66% of Black and 61% of Latinx Pew Survey respondents.
  3. Provide a stipend/budget to ensure everyone has what they need. Think about the hidden costs and issues people seldom talk about, like monthly internet speed and usage fees, and (restricted or unreliable) service availability outside of city centers.
  4. Survey employees to get a sense of their reality. Not everyone has the same means, financially or otherwise. Many minority and low-income workers, as Prempeh points out, live in cramped family quarters totally lacking in privacy. Brainstorm and work together to find ways to work around these kinds of situations. Are there community spaces that can be transformed into co-working spaces in the employee’s neighborhood?
  5. Economic status can be conveyed based on the background workspace of a Zoom meeting participant. What’s worrying, is research shows that our conscious or unconscious assessment of that physical space can affect how we view an individual’s status and in turn, their competency. Consider introducing technologies or instructing employees to create a plain backdrop that eliminates any potential bias.
  6. Audit your virtual get-togethers. Use check-in surveys and one-on-one conversations to get a clear sense of interest levels and abilities to participate. Keeping these events to work hours might accommodate some while excluding others. A late afternoon end-of-day bevi-break, for instance, might not work for parents on after school pickup duties, while a morning or midday coffee catch-up could be off-putting for those swamped with work. Be open to shifting timeframes for more fluid participation.
  7. For futurists and early adapters, MIT researchers suggest exploring virtual and augmented reality technologies as a substitute for some in-person interactions that don’t readily translate to a two-dimensional screen.
  8. Have managers assess whether, and how tasks within a specific role or job category can be transitioned to remote work. With the right technology and tools, maybe an in-person supervisor, for instance, could be equipped to support operations and processes remotely. Creative, out-of-the-box thinking is a leader’s best offensive measure for these unconventional times.
  9. In addition to taking stock of current and potential technology, leaders of multinational companies need to assess the geographic distribution of their labor forces, take technology and lifestyle factors into account, and look for opportunities to connect people who perform similar work from multiple countries to collaborate and share responsibilities.
  10. For those employees in jobs that simply don’t fit a remote work model, develop policies and programs that provide equity in other ways, including, for example, commuter transport, childcare, and eldercare subsidies.

Remote working arrangements add another dimension to the 21st-century challenges of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Instead of focusing on equality – sameness for all – our obligation as business leaders and HR practitioners is to eliminate biases and discriminatory barriers; to create a culture of equity where acceptance of differences and inclusive behavior are second nature, and everyone feels they genuinely belong. For a deeper dive into the topic check out WorkTango’s 2021 guide to Employee Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Surveys HERE.

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