How do you address bias in hybrid and remote work?

Apr 27, 2022 by Nomadic Team

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Like any workplace environment, remote and hybrid work have their strengths and weaknesses. While the ability to work from anywhere has allowed many organizations to be more resilient and flexible in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re also seeing a troubling spike in incidences of discriminatory workplace harassment, as well as other patterns of bias, after two years of widespread remote work.

Fortunately, a few key strategies not only help companies address bias in remote and hybrid work, but also allow them to use hybrid and remote work to strenghten DEI efforts. To put these hybrid and remote work strategies into action, however, we first need to understand how virtual work has driven this uptick in harassment in the first place.

Want more on hybrid work? Check out our answers to some of today's top hybrid work questions, a recording of our event with the world's top hybrid work experts, and our four keys to getting your hybrid work model right.

Harassment in hybrid and remote work: a definition

A recent survey of 3,000 employees in tech conducted by Project Include (a nonprofit advocacy group focused on promoting diversity in the tech industry) shows that tech workers have experienced a sharp increase in incidences of workplace harassment based on gender, race, age, or ability since switching to remote work in 2020.

What does this virtual harrassment look like? In the study, harassment was defined as including behaviors like “yelling at coworkers, uncomfortable or repeated questions about identity or appearance, dismissive attitudes, teasing put-downs, repeated requests for dates, groping or grinding, or quid pro quo requests for sex.” Respondents reported a general uptick in harassment, with 14% reporting an increase in age-based harassment, 26% reporting an increase in gender-based harassment, and 10% reporting an increase in race/ethnicity-based harassment. Gender-based harassment overwhelmingly impacted women of color and members of the LGBTQ community: 39% of Asian women and nonbinary people, 38% of Hispanic women and nonbinary people, and 42% of transgender people experienced gender-based harassment in the remote workplace.

Meanwhile, the report also found that workplace hostility, defined as “forms of harm that are less abusive than harassment and may not be considered abuse or against company rules, but are still toxic or harmful in nature,” is also on the rise. One in 10 employees surveyed experienced an increase in race/ethnicity-based hostility, and 42% of people who experienced race/ethnicity-based hostility identified as African, African American, or Black. Additionally, 27% of employees who identify as Asian or Asian-American reported increased race/ethnicity-based hostility. While hostility is a bit harder to pin down, the data clearly shows that many are experiencing psychologically unsafe remote work environments.

Other forms of bias and discrimination in remote and hybrid work

While the Project Include report focuses primarily on harassment and hostility in the workplace, employees have also experienced a pronounced rise in bias and “soft” discrimination in the workplace. These behaviors are harder to measure because they are often passive, may be subconscious on the part of the perpetrators, and are difficult to prove or report. But they are unquestionably happening. People of color, particularly Black, Latinx, indigenous women, and nonbinary people are already highly underrepresented in many of the fields that switched to remote work, and may be further marginalized by the isolation of remote work. Opportunities to form relationships, lead projects, or seek promotions may flow to the most visible people in the workplace, who are also often the most privileged and the best able to access strong affinity networks that might include powerful managers and leaders.

Similar forms of bias may also hamper the growth of people for whom the tools of remote work are inaccessible. This group includes people with disabilities, who may not be able to use all of the same tools as the rest of the group or may need to adapt them for their use; older employees, who may not be as familiar with the technical demands of remote work; and working parents, who may find it difficult to adhere to always-on camera policies or the expectation for immediate response while juggling caregiving responsibilities.

How do remote and hybrid work make discrimination worse?

We all know that bias and harassment are persistent problems in physical workplaces. But it seems clear that there is something in particular about remote work under our current working conditions that exacerbates the problem.

It’s likely that a complex constellation of factors are creating this surge, from the dehumanization of digital communication to the blurring of professional and personal boundaries. Pressures outside of the workplace around the pandemic and other current events may also be stoking tension and sowing division. Remote work likely has no more inherent bias than any physical office, but the fact that we’re still working out the social rules and mores we adhere to in digital environments makes this a moment for opportunistic harassment, discrimination, and bias to surge unchecked. To address this dangerous dynamic, we need to better untangle what’s happening and change our behavior accordingly.

As we continue working to develop clear cultures and norms for the virtual workplace, it may help to consider which aspects of remote work enable unsafe and/or discriminatory practices and what we can do to address those problem areas.

Discriminatory and harassing behaviors certainly exist in physical office environments too, but something about remote work is emboldening bad actors in the workplace to escalate harassment and hostility, and leaving room for more passive but equally damaging subconscious bias to take hold.

There are four factors driving bias in remote work:

  1. Workplaces are under intense pressure. In an environment where workplace surveillance tools may track productivity, work hours are skewing longer, work and home life blur, and managers are struggling to communicate effectively to their teams, more workplace conflict can arise. This can lead burned-out workers to lose their tempers inappropriately and lash out at colleagues, sometimes in ways that rise to the level of harassment and might include personal insults around identity.

  2. The tools we use may enable inappropriate behavior. The distance of an email or Slack message (much like the comments section of an online article) can dehumanize correspondence, making some people more inclined to make a discriminatory or hostile comment or joke that they would never try under the social scrutiny of an in-person meeting. Conversely, the false intimacy of a one-on-one video call from one’s home might contribute to gender-based harassment, like inappropriate personal questions or come-ons.

  3. Bias is built into our systems. Many of the tools we use may also contribute passively to other forms of discrimination, like ableism and ageism. Tools that don’t provide closed captions or are otherwise inaccessible might make remote work as a whole inaccessible for employees with certain disabilities. Adoption of new technologies may be somewhat slower for older employees, which can invite ageist commentary and harassment.

  4. People return to what is familiar. Managers and leaders under pressure in an uncertain time have a strong tendency to rely again and again on the same handful of employees, picking people who are within their network, who are well-known to the manager, or who remind them of themselves. Because leaders and managers still skew overwhelmingly white and male in most workplaces, this kind of affinity bias tends to be particularly damaging to people of color, women, and other groups underrepresented in leadership. People who are excluded from traditional power structures and networks may see their careers stall under remote work conditions. Similar forms of bias play out on large video calls, which are often dominated by a handful of voices and can leave little room for others to break in.

Addressing bias in hybrid and remote work

Remote work doesn’t have to create an unsafe environment; many companies have found effective ways to create strong cultures where employees feel safe, supported, and free to be themselves:

  1. Make sure employee concerns are heard. Employees won’t come forward with reports of harassment unless they feel that they will be listened to. This can lead unhealthy workplaces to fester for years. Make sure that managers and leaders regularly check in with their direct reports (and that they’re checking in about wellbeing and happiness, not only productivity and deliverables.) Meanwhile, ensure the company has and clearly communicates a safe channel for employees to bring any concerns. When concerns arise, make sure they are handled promptly and in a way that is comfortable for the employee.

  2. Prioritize work-life balance. Eliminate productivity trackers and surveillance tools and prioritize asynchronous work instead. Almost all employees work more effectively when they feel a sense of autonomy and trust. Similarly, checking in with employees to make sure they are taking vacation days, not overworking, and have time to accomplish their tasks helps to reduce burnout, ease interpersonal tensions, and reduce the potential for hostility to grow. Make sure there is no actual or perceived penalty for taking vacation time, making medical appointments, or (crucially in the case of working parents) reconfiguring schedules to meet the needs of homeschooling and caregiving.

  3. Make the workplace transparent. Significantly more harassment happens in one-on-one environments like email, chat, or video calls. Whenever possible, eliminate opportunities for harassment by using productivity tools (like Slack or Microsoft Teams) that are public, transparent, and accessible to most, if not all, employees. While it would be impractical to completely eliminate direct messaging, creating a culture where employees generally communicate in public, open channels increases accountability and reduces the likelihood of harassing actions or comments. Similarly, including more people on video meetings and in email threads can make these spaces safer as well. Whatever tools we select, we should also make sure that the technology itself is as inclusive as possible to employee needs.

  4. Create equitable structures whenever possible. If video calls, productivity channels, and projects seem to be dominated by the same handful of people over and over again, it is a strong sign that inequity and bias are crowding out other points of view. Bias can be insidious, but we can fight it by creating deliberate structures that mitigate favoritism. For example, assigning work based on a rota rather on the preference of a leader ensures that a range of qualified employees bring their voices to various projects. Similarly, using structured icebreakers, conversation starters, or turn-based formats on calls and in channels can ensure a more balanced distribution of talking time for participants.

While every company is different and there is no perfect system for eliminating harassment and hostility, these ideas are a great starting point to help organizations take advantage of the opportunities hybrid and remote work provides, while still prioritizing equity, safety, and employee wellbeing.

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