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It’s not enough to allow people to work remotely. The way remote workers are managed and included needs to change.
Earlier this week an ONS report came out, stating more or less what we already know – that remote workers don’t get promoted as much and tend to miss out on bonuses. The visibility issue with remote workers is a long-standing one and one that hasn’t really been properly tackled by most employers.
Part of the problem is that many of the people who have asked to work remotely – because they have needed to – have been made to feel that this is a bit of a favour and that they shouldn’t really rock the boat too much in case they get that flexibility taken away. Even with a formal flexible working agreement in place, which constitutes a permanent change to a contract, there are often attempts to get people back into the office. And there haven’t, in the past at least, been that many remote new jobs on offer.
Clearly being passed over for promotion and bonuses creates an inequality between remote and non-remote workers and, as such, it constitutes a form of discrimination. The fact that many of those passed over and ignored, the people who need to work remotely, are women suggests an indirect form of sex discrimination may be at play.
There have been countless articles about how to be more visible as a remote employee, but not so much thought has maybe been put into the other side of the equation. This is often because it is usually left to the individual to make flexible working, of which remote working is one part, work.
In the last year we have seen many people having to work remotely and that has been a good thing because it has shown those who have been against remote working because they think people can’t work from home in x job that they are wrong. It has also highlighted issues such as lack of visibility for remote workers and how different forms of management are needed for remote or hybrid workers.
On the other hand, not everyone likes working remotely and pandemic working is not the same as normal remote working where you actually get to leave your home and see people and you don’t spend every waking moment on Zoom or doing algebra with your son while simultaneously writing an in-depth report on internationalisation in higher education. There have been numerous articles putting forward the negatives of remote working in lockdown, from Zoom fatigue, mental health issues and back pains from working in cramped conditions to the economic impact on city centre shops.
But just because it doesn’t work for some people doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an option for the people for whom it does work – whose numbers have grown considerably during the pandemic.
But to get the most out of it employers need to plan and talk to remote workers about what they need. That includes tackling the visibility issue and ensuring remote workers are not left out on a limb and do feel included in meetings, social events and other parts of working life. It’s a two-way thing.
If not, the career progression issue won’t be tackled and reports such as the ONS one will continue to come out and be reported as if remote working equals no promotion because of the nature of remote working and not because of the nature of how it is managed.
And that, of course, will put off many people who might actually like – but not need – to work from home. Given that women are still more likely to be the primary carers of children and elderly relatives and therefore to need remote working more, it is highly likely that it will be men, still under pressure due to the male breadwinner model, who are put off most.
If we end up after all we have gone through in the last year with more women working from home and men being mainly in the office, the visibility issue – not to mention the impact on the gender pay gap – is likely to remain because it is not until there is critical mass in remote working numbers and more of a balance in who does it that things will really shift. So by all means we should be concerned about the ONS report, but we should read it not as a cautionary tale, but as a statement on pre-Covid inequality and an example of why just giving people flexible working is not enough.