W Power 2024

Remote work and inequality: Lessons for leaders

If workplaces have policies that support healthy remote and hybrid work models, not only will employees and organizations benefit, so will equality in the workplace

Published: Feb 22, 2024 04:38:25 PM IST
Updated: Feb 22, 2024 04:47:10 PM IST

Remote and flexible work arrangements reduce barriers to work, contributing to economic equality.
Image: ShutterstockRemote and flexible work arrangements reduce barriers to work, contributing to economic equality. Image: Shutterstock 

As pandemic restrictions have eased, many of us are still working from home. Whether in a hybrid arrangement or working remotely full-time, a lot of people prefer skipping their commute to enjoy a more relaxed working environment. Statistics Canada reports that 80 per cent of those who began working remotely during the pandemic would prefer to continue working at least half of their hours at home.

The way that people perceive and experience work has changed drastically over the last two years. But how have marginalized workers, specifically, been affected by the shift to working from home? And what types of work design will best facilitate equity, well-being, and opportunity for workers moving forward?

Analyzing the dynamics of remote work with an intersectional lens—one that pays attention to the compounding impacts of gender, race, Indigeneity, immigration status, disability and other factors—allows us to understand how different groups may be experiencing this transformation in work culture. While remote and hybrid work models have improved many workers’ lives, they are also associated with career penalties, work-family conflict, higher stress levels, and other mental health challenges—particularly for those who were already experiencing inequity.

Many of these disadvantages come about not because of anything inherent about remote work but because of the biases, stereotypes and social norms surrounding paid and unpaid work. Organizations therefore need to take measures to ensure well-being and fairness for all employees who are now working from home.

Why Remote Work Should be Here to Stay

Remote and flexible work arrangements reduce barriers to work, contributing to economic equality. For example, caregiving responsibilities—most often done by women—are often easier to take on while working from home. Research shows that remote and flexible work arrangements facilitate women’s return to work after childbirth and help them remain in the workforce, leading to economic benefits not only for women but also their families and the economy overall. A recent study in the UK found that women with access to flexible work hours and remote work are less likely to reduce their working hours after having children. Another found that mothers who telecommuted during the pandemic were able to maintain paid work to a greater extent than mothers who worked onsite, while fathers’ work hours did not differ. It follows that recent polling data in Canada show that 91 per cent of women want to work remotely at least part time, and 45 per cent of women report that they will quit their jobs if they are not able to do so.

Another potential economic advantage of remote work relates to the benefit of being able to work from anywhere—including outside of expensive urban areas. A recent study conducted in the U.S. investigated home ownership and telework and found that nearly two million households are at a “telework tipping point” for home ownership: Their jobs can be performed remotely, and they could afford to buy a home in a less expensive nearby locale if granted permanent access to telework arrangements. The researchers found that nationwide, Asian and Latinx renters are most likely to be in this tipping point; while in metropolitan areas, Black renters are most likely. Considering that home ownership is related to generational wealth, access to remote work could significantly benefit racialized families.  

Remote work is also linked to improving worker wellness and job performance. Some research on part-time teleworkers has found that when they work from home, they have a higher ability to concentrate and require less recovery from stress after work, compared to when they work in-office. Other research has linked remote work to increased positive emotions such as feeling at ease, enthusiasm and happiness. Studies have also suggested that it may result in higher job satisfaction, organizational belonging, job performance, motivation and productivity, as well as a significant reduction in attrition. Some of these results may come about partially because eliminating commuting allows workers to save time and energy.  

Workers who belong to marginalized groups may particularly find that remote work makes them feel more at ease. Research suggests that when they work remotely rather than in the office, women are less likely to experience everyday gender discrimination such as slights and offenses occurring in interactions with colleagues or clients (such as being asked to clean the workplace kitchen). And although scholarly research has not yet been released on similar racial impacts, a 2021 study by the non-profit Future Forum found that only three per cent of Black professionals report wanting to return to work compared 21 per cent of their white peers. This is because remote work has allowed them to avoid microaggressions and other demeaning remarks in the workplace while increasing their ability to manage stress. Further, in a small-scale study conducted during the pandemic, persons with disabilities working remotely reported that the majority found it reduced their stress in part because it increased their ability to work safely; although some discussed experiencing distractions at home, telecommuting was still their preferred option.

Also read: 7 tips to thrive in a hybrid work environment

The Flip Side: Downsides of Remote Work

Although remote work may sound like a catch-all solution for issues of workplace inequality, organizations need to implement it carefully and with attention to mitigating bias, marginalization and isolation.

Even though many people enjoy the flexibility of working from home, remote work does not align with the pervasive and stereotypical ‘ideal worker’ norm, and as a result, employers may stigmatize their employees for choosing to do so. Traditionally, employees have demonstrated career dedication by working long hours and putting in face time. Remote workers indeed have decreased visibility, which can lead to incorrect perceptions that they work less hard than their in-office counterparts, or that they are less ambitious.

Although people of all genders desire workplace flexibility, it is women who organizations tend to penalize for teleworking. This is partly because women often make use of formal accommodation policies (which are often targeted towards mothers) while men work remotely on an ad hoc basis, allowing them to more readily ‘pass’ as an ideal worker. In turn, women face more career penalties, even though they are not the only ones deviating from the ideal-worker norm, while men taking informal accommodations don’t confront the same penalties. In fact, when organizations have formal flexible work policies in place, leaders may use these policies as a signal that they are ‘progressive’—and therefore not responsible for women’s stalled advancement. They can then deflect attention away from the idea that unconscious bias or discrimination may continue to affect women’s advancement even with such policies in place.

This bias about remote work can have negative consequences, such as wage penalties and fewer promotions, and intersectional analyses point out that these consequences hinge on race, gender and caregiving status. In the U.S., a study found that pre-pandemic, in occupations where remote work was common, mothers working at home most days of the week earned less than mothers working onsite.

Another study showed that compared to fathers, mothers’ earnings are more sensitive to reductions in hours worked onsite: with each hour worked offsite, their earnings decreased more than those of fathers. Research has also found that remote working led to an 18 per cent decrease in the mean hourly wages of Black women, compared to an eigh per cent decrease for white women. The researchers suggest that Black women were more likely to be subject to bias for teleworking through being allocated less valuable assignments, for example.

But discouraging remote work is not beneficial for employers: a 2018 study found that when workers perceived their organization to be biased against flexibility arrangements, their job satisfaction and engagement decreased and their turnover intentions and work-life spillover increased. This was true for all workers, including men without children who are the classic ‘ideal workers’. The bottom line: It is up to employers to ensure that flexibility policies and practices are implemented without stigmatizing workers who use them.

Remote workers may also find that although they enjoy working remotely, it can affect their well-being by dissolving boundaries between paid and unpaid work. A gender lens is similarly important here, because in heterosexual relationships, it is women who tend to take on more unpaid work. Research conducted during the pandemic shows that when both men and women worked remotely, men’s childcare and domestic work increased, but women’s did as well. When only mothers worked remotely or when neither parent worked remotely, mothers again took on most additional caring and homeschooling. Another study from the OECD suggested that over 61 per cent of mothers with children under 12 reported doing most or all extra care work during the pandemic.

The gender gap in unpaid work was largely unchanged during the pandemic, even with the rise of remote work. Scholars have therefore suggested that remote work may be contributing to ‘role congestion’ for mothers, whereby they blend their work and personal lives to an unsustainable degree. For example, they might be more likely to work on weekends or while doing unpaid tasks such as cooking or helping children with homework.

This role congestion can translate into increased stress and other mental health issues. A U.S. study during the pandemic showed that 62 per cent of telecommuting women compared to 43 per cent of telecommuting men reported two or more mental health issues after beginning working from home, including depression, loneliness, anxiety and stress, as well as increased fatigue. Research focusing particularly on caregivers found that mothers who telecommuted during the pandemic reported significantly higher anxiety, loneliness, and depression than fathers who telecommuted (there were no statistically significant differences between genders for those who did not telecommute).

This mental-health load is exacerbated when employers closely monitor remote workers online or assume that they are available to check their email at any time of day or night. Establishing boundaries can be difficult when employees feel like they must always be ‘on’, and monitoring remote workers leads to increased strain.

Finally, working at home might make employees feel lonelier and more isolated. Many of us form close social connections in our workplaces, and those might disappear when we work from home all the time. In a recent global Microsoft survey of 31,000 workers, 56 per cent of remote workers reported that they had fewer work friendships than before they worked remotely, and 50 per cent felt lonelier than before. Zoom meetings aren’t a good substitute for in-person socialization.

A More Equal Future

Remote work is here to stay—which means it’s more important than ever for organizations to prioritize equality and well-being for all employees. Although there is often a focus on how remote work benefits people who have caregiving responsibilities or disabilities, remote work has advantages for all workers—such increasing their job performance, productivity and positive feelings.
It would benefit both workers and employers if organizations offered remote work options on a regular basis and ensured that these options are not stigmatized or allocated for specific groups. That is, remote and flexible work arrangements should be normalized for all workers rather than being treated as a special accommodation. Leaders should also work remotely to set the example that such practices are acceptable, and organizations can give managers training on the benefits of these arrangements. Further, organizations must ensure that promotions and raises are not based on face time, and that they provide valuable opportunities for networking, even for remote workers.

Making remote work more equitable also necessitates attention to work design. Studies indicate that some forms of work practices and routines (i.e. more traditionally bureaucratic arrangements) facilitate the use of remote work and flexible work policies more than others because procedures are more likely to be standardized, and project documentation is accessible online. This reduces information asymmetry for those working remotely.

Also read: Does hybrid work actually work? Insights from 30,000 emails

Work design for this new world of work must also consider how to foster team member risk-taking, acceptance and trust in hybrid and remote contexts. Because communication among team members is more formal and scheduled when working remotely, it can be more challenging to request help informally or to bounce ideas off of coworkers. This is especially the case for employees that are members of marginalized groups, who may have ongoing challenges gaining acceptance and experiencing trust at work.

In order to facilitate trust and reduce information asymmetry, managers of remote- and hybrid-working teams can be intentional about creating opportunities for team-building and ensuring that policies, procedures and responsibilities are explicitly outlined and accessible online. If remote or hybrid work is implemented without changes to work design, organizations risk exacerbating the costs indicated herein and reaping none of the benefits.

Initiatives for social support can also improve the well-being of remote workers. Not all workers have strong social networks outside of work, which can make remote work feel particularly isolating. Organizations can facilitate social groups at work, including those that allow for members of marginalized groups to maintain important networks, such as employee resource networks for women, racialized groups and people with disabilities. To avoid having such virtual social interactions feel forced or like a ‘chore’ compared to in-person socialization, care must be taken in designing them so that they create meaningful interaction. To reduce strain and work-life conflict for remote workers, organizations can also eliminate employee monitoring and enforce a ‘right to disconnect’ from work outside of standard working hours.

In closing

The COVID-19 pandemic provoked a host of transformations for both paid and unpaid work. For many workers, particularly those in white-collar, knowledge-work professions, it provided the opportunity to experience working from home full-time. While some remote workers found that this change allowed them to become more productive, more at ease, less stressed and able to experience more freedom from day to day, for others—especially those in marginalized groups—the shift may have come with increased social isolation, strain and work-family conflict, as well as the possibility of experiencing increased bias that could lead to, or has already led to, reduced career opportunities.

It is important for both organizational and public policy leaders to address this transformation of work with an intersectional lens, and to create policies and initiatives that prioritize well-being and prosperity for all remote workers—not just those who fit the ‘ideal worker’ norm.

The good news is this: When workplaces have policies that support healthy remote and hybrid work models, not only do employees and organizations benefit, so does equality in the workplace.   

Carmina Ravanera is Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE) at the Rotman School of Management. Kim de Laat is an Assistant Professor of Organization and Human Behaviour at the Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business, University of Waterloo.  GATE Founding Director Sarah Kaplan is Distinguished Professor of Gender & the Economy and Professor of Strategic Management at the Rotman School. She is the author of The 360° Corporation: From Stakeholder Trade-offs to Transformation (Stanford Business Books, 2019). This article has been adapted from GATE’s report, The Future of Work: Will Remote Work Help or Hinder the Pursuit of Equality? which is available online.

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]