The risks and opportunities of the return to the office
22nd July 2021
The risks and opportunities of the return to the office
With Covid-19 restrictions now eased, six million workers could be given the right to stay at home under plans Government Ministers are reportedly drawing up. What would this mean for employees and employers? We explore the advantages and disadvantages of remote working for diversity and inclusion.
Organisations have discovered benefits since remote working was introduced in March 2020. These include increased efficiency and productivity, enhanced work-life balance for employees and reduced business costs. But there are risks and down-sides too.
For a fortunate group of employees, a good day pre-pandemic might have consisted of listening to a podcast on the commute in, grabbing a coffee with a colleague, chatting to a new starter in the lift, spontaneously accepting a lunch invitation, facilitating a team meeting and conducting a 1-to-1. All before driving home from work via the gym, listening to music. Jump to lockdown working, and the routine might consist of an 8.30am Zoom, followed by collaborating on shared documents, lunch at the computer and another scheduled online meeting. Of course, many pre-pandemic days were far from perfect but it does demonstrate how vastly things have changed.
But in reality, experiences and circumstances vary significantly between individuals. Consider a cohort of recent graduates. They might work remotely from crowded flat shares, dialling into Zoom from their bedrooms, or experience isolation from lonely days with only their laptops for company. They may not have entered the office, missing out on valuable colleague interaction, practical ‘on-the-job’ learning and absorbing office culture. They are denied opportunities for spontaneous creative collaboration and daily interaction in the absence of lifts, printers and coffee machines!
Remote working is complex, and of course not all roles are work-at-home-friendly. Employers need to take a thoughtful and balanced approach which takes account of individual employee needs and situations.
Remote worker opportunities
Parents and Carers
Remote working enables employers to create a more practical work environment for employees who have traditionally had a particularly difficult job of balancing home and work responsibilities. It can open the workplace up to marginalised groups including single parents, those returning after illness or with additional caring responsibilities.
Women have long been the primary caregivers for families, and for them, work-life balance can be a challenge because of poorly designed and non-inclusive policies. Remote working, combined with flexible work schedules, can enable many to work and take care of ageing or ill family members. There is also a huge opportunity for fathers to take on the bigger hands-on caring role that they have long desired, and for a more equal caring balance between parents to be achieved. In the absence of a daily commute, working parents can benefit significantly from homeworking.
Whilst remote working often benefits parents, it can hinder them too. For many, distractions associated with caring responsibilities in the home can be a challenge. This particularly affects working parents, and can result in increased stress levels.
Homeworking has been life-changing for disabled people, and has opened up doors. Many were previously excluded from the workforce by being denied the flexibility they needed. Well-managed remote working enhances accessibility. The daily commute and inaccessible office environments can be barriers, so where home offices are already adapted to needs, the full value of the contribution of disabled employees can be available to employers, with minimal cost.
Remote working helps workers with unseen disabilities. Working in a familiar home environment can benefit neurodivergent staff with autism or OCD, for example.
Lower wage earners
Lower wage earners can make additional savings on childcare and commuting costs when remote working.
Skills gaps and diversity
Employees no longer have to live where their company is located, meaning that wider and more varied talent pools are opened up for employers, helping organisations leverage the innovation and other benefits that greater diversity delivers.
Home-working can make it difficult for employees to feel connected, build relationships and become part of the company culture. Chance or casual conversations are no longer likely.
Isolation and reduced face-to-face social contact can affect some groups more than others, and the effect can range from reduced mental wellbeing to implications for physical safety. For example, ONS data from 2019 reported that an estimated 1.6m women aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse. For some, a safe work environment can provide respite from a toxic personal life.
Remote employees often feel ‘out of the loop’ compared to office-based peers, and home-working presents new challenges for, and requires a new skillset of line managers, when employees are out of sight.
A challenge often faced by under-represented employee groups is being visible, listened to and valued for their input and contributions. When employees are homeworking, the potential for exclusion – especially amongst these groups – can increase.
Conversely, working remotely can present a release for employees who have to deal with daily micro-aggressions in the office and struggle to be their ‘true selves’ at work because of stereotypes, expectations and assumptions. However, micro-aggressions can surface in different forms online, and managers need to understand the dynamics of this new space and be ready to challenge non-inclusive behaviour.
In-group and out-group dynamics are accentuated in remote work – some people are included in conversations and others aren’t. Lack of communication can result in polarisation, and in some people being ‘scapegoated’. Then there is also the potential for ‘proximity bias’, which in a hybrid workplace means that managers may be more likely to offer the best assignments, give positive reviews and grant promotions to employees with whom they are in closest contact, i.e., those who are in the office.
No two people are the same
A director might be working from a dedicated office space in their own home with a support network of experienced colleagues around them. Conversely, a first jobber might have relocated and share a small living space with strangers. Homeworkers often report poor mental health or motivation issues. This could be due to not having space, struggling with equipment or being unable to focus due to childcare. Managers need to keep in mind that some individuals may lack stable Wi-Fi or other basic facilities that they take for granted.
The new world of work
A new well-managed and well-structured world of work can allow for presenteeism to be replaced with agile working, and office time to be used constructively for employees to develop, bond and collaborate. To maximise new opportunities and ensure that diversity and inclusion gains and progress are not lost, organisations need to continue to sustain and adapt their D&I approach and initiatives. They must address both the risks and advantages of remote working, and build in rigour, flexibility and balance to accommodate individual employee needs and situations.