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Remote Work: The Inclusion Paradox

Remote and hybrid work have the power to enable greater inclusion in the workplace. They also have the potential to worsen existing inequalities, reinforce dated stereotypes and create whole new inclusion challenges. The answer to achieving the former and avoiding the latter is effective implementation.

The demand for remote, hybrid and flexible work is high overall, but surveys indicate it is especially desired by people of colour, women, working parents, disabled employees and LGBTQ+ employees. There are various reasons for this; in the case of working parents or those with other caring responsibilities, flexible work can help employees to balance these responsibilities with their work. In other cases, remote work in particular can provide respite from feeling forced to conceal aspects of one’s identity or dealing with workplace micro-aggressions.

Forms of flexible work are however associated with stigma and negative attitudes, and even though remote working has become more normalized since the global pandemic, these old attitudes are still very much present in some organizations. Combined with proximity bias (a tendency to favour those with whom we are in closest proximity) this can lead to the exclusion of flexible and remote workers. Remote work has also been associated with reduced career progression and financial reward, partly because of reduced visibility.

Once you overcome these challenges, there are many inclusion benefits to be gained from remote, hybrid and flexible work. A lack of quality flexible work is considered to be one of the contributing factors to the gender pay gap. Offering remote work can also open the labour market to those who are unable to work in a traditional office and/or a 9-5 environment, providing opportunities for organizations to attract new valuable talent.

As we can see, the picture is complex, and the true impact of increasing remote and hybrid work will only be truly understood in the future. When it comes to all aspects of hybrid work, we are all learning more things with the passage of time.

Remote work and the inclusion of disabled employees

One group for whom remote working can be revolutionary is disabled workers. According to the National Office for Statistics, in the UK disabled workers earn less than their non-disabled peers – and that gap is widening. There is also a significant gap in the employment rate between disabled and non-disabled people; in 2022 this gap is more than 28 percentage points.

Covid-19 itself has created further health issues for many people. It is estimated that 2 million people in the UK are living with Long Covid, which has been found to amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010 in a recent Tribunal ruling.

Remote work can increase access to employment for disabled workers. It can also make managing complex conditions much easier than in a typical office environment. Additionally, some conditions may be worsened by being in an office – or the commute to get there.

To ensure inclusion, disabled people need to have their needs specifically considered when implementing flexible work policies. For example, where reasonable adjustments are provided by an employer, they may need to be replicated in both the home and office environment if the individual is working in a hybrid way. If disabled employees are working remotely more frequently than other colleagues, organizations also need to consider how to ensure they are still able to progress and develop their careers fully.

Steps toward remote inclusion

To truly make hybrid and remote work inclusive, there are some simple steps that organizations can take.

  1. Train people managers on creating inclusive working environments
    As well as broad skills relating to diversity, equality and inclusion, people managers need to be aware of the specific issues relating to remote, hybrid and flexible work and inclusion. This includes understanding some of the remote work biases and how they can influence behaviour at work.
  2. Promote flexibility for all
    It is important that flexible forms of work are seen as something that is for everyone – not just particular groups. This is key to the acceptance and normalization of flexible work, and how its stigma can be reduced. Considering disability inclusion again more specifically, the normalization of remote work means that disabled workers do not have to repeatedly request remote work as a reasonable adjustment.
  3. Monitor take-up of flexible forms of work
    It’s important to understand who is working flexibly and in what way. This helps to identify any areas within the organisation where flexible working is not taking place – which should be investigated. Monitoring take-up will also help organizations to assess the impact and outcomes of flexible work.
  4. Engage with relevant groups that may experience exclusion
    People will experience remote work in different ways. It is important to listen to the voices of specific groups to understand their perspectives, needs and experiences. Consider holding dedicated focus groups, for example with disability staff groups, working parents or carers.
  5. Monitor outcomes
    How is remote, hybrid and flexible work influencing recruitment, learning opportunities, progression or reward?
  6. Identify potential risks – and create an action plan to address them
    Some of the potential risks to the inclusion of remote, hybrid and flexible work have been discussed in this post. However, organizations may also have their own specific risks depending on their sector, industry or the type of work that they do. Organizations should take a risk assessment approach to identify these and consider how they can be addressed.
  7. Focus on inclusive meetings
    Remote and hybrid meetings present their own challenges to inclusion, especially around ensuring equal employee voice. Meetings can be made more inclusive by creating organizational guidelines around when and how meetings take place. Simple steps such as engaging with remote participants before in-person attendees can help to create equality in the meeting space.

Above all, to ensure that remote and hybrid work is inclusive, organizations need to place inclusion at the heart of their remote and hybrid working arrangements. Only then can we begin to ensure that new ways of working can be a force for good, and help to level the playing field for previously excluded groups or employees with protected characteristics.

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