Consider the downside of remote work

It’s been nearly two years since organizations responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by sending most office workers, including IT consultants, home to fulfill their job responsibilities.

As we saw so many of our clients implement mitigation efforts, we adapted as well as we could to keep in touch with them and maintain the relationships we’ve developed. Then we made the decision to send our employees home in compliance with mandates at state and local levels.

At the time, business and IT publications predicted that remote work would become the standard for everyone who had previously worked in an office. That hasn’t proved to be true, but many companies have transitioned to a hybrid environment where some employees are in the office all the time while others work remotely one or more days per week.

As we blogged in June 2020, working from home is close to Nirvana for some workers; for others, it’s definitely not.

The Society for Human Resource Management noted in May, “Collaborating Remotely Can Be Hard.” The article quoted Judith Olson, a distance-work expert and professor at the University of California Irvine (UCI), who noted that distance still matters when people are trying to work together on a project.

She said, "There is evidence that when working at home uninterrupted, you get a lot more solo work done. It's the collaboration aspect that suffers. There is something called 'the attribution error' in psychology that plays out here: If someone local is unavailable or out of the office, you attribute it to the situation, that something must have come up. If someone remote is unavailable, you attribute it to the personality, that they are shirking, avoiding you or are incompetent. So, the decision-makers, who are likely in the office, attribute evil personal motivations" to remote workers with whom they can't connect easily.

Offering a dissenting opinion was Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute and a senior research advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management, said people can work harder even when not around others doing so.

"If you don't have commuting time, if you don't have chit-chat time in the office, telecommuters can work longer and harder. It all comes down to organizational leaders," Galinsky said. "Do they inspire teamwork? Do they inspire respect and support for all, whether they work at home or not? That's what makes the difference."

Regardless of how well remote workers perform, a bias against them can develop simply because they are not working in the office. It can be a classic case of the cliché “out of sight, out of mind” ringing true.

In August, the New York Times studied this phenomenon, noting that bias against remote workers could become a new obstacle to making workplaces more diverse and inclusive.

The article quoted Sonja Gittens Ottley, the head of diversity and inclusion at the software company Asana, which has more than 1,000 employees who will be allowed to spend two days a week working remotely when offices reopen, who said, “The employees who are working in person may get more visibility with leadership. They might have more opportunities for mentorship and sponsorship.”

Take meetings in which everyone dials in from a laptop: “After the meeting ends, the three people at the office close their laptops, step out of the cubicles, go grab a coffee, go chat in the corridor, basically carry the meeting on,” said Dr. Nicholas Bloom of Stanford. “And so you just naturally have an in group and an out group.”

Being in the out group can be particularly hard on young workers. Working remotely means that they don’t have daily access to the type of daily exposure to their company’s culture that previous generations have had.

The New York Times published an article in November headlined with the charge that “Remote Work Is Failing Young Employees.” The piece was written by Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel, authors of a forthcoming book on remote work.

They contend that many of the perks of truly flexible work — a self-directed schedule, distance from overly chatty co-workers, remove from office gossip and politics — could also work against younger employees. If companies don’t create intentional, structured mentorship programs to help younger and remote colleagues with on-the-job learning, they risk leaving a generation behind.

Peterson and Warzel described the situation of a midcareer lawyer who started a government fellowship right before the beginning of the pandemic. For him, remote work meant that his already distant manager disappeared fully. Prepandemic, he described his supervisor as “one of those people that was visibly very busy and constantly apologizing for it.” Things only got worse when they left the office. “I can’t emphasize the extent to which I felt like I fell off the face of the earth to her,” he said.

Is there a solution? The authors urge companies to plan carefully as they implement a hybrid work environment, where employees split time between home and the office. They note, “Truly flexible work may seem breezy and carefree, but it’s actually the product of careful planning and clear communication. It requires peering around corners and attempting to identify needs and problems before they fester.”

What’s your current environment? Do you have a mix of in-office and remote workers? How do you make it work? We’re interested in your thoughts!