It was a Friday the 13th we’ll never forget. On that day in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency. Businesses closed, and 70 percent of the U.S. workforce became telecommuters overnight. HR professionals pivoted quickly to guide their people into a new world of laptops, video calls and virtual meeting platforms.
Many employees enjoyed the flexibility of remote work, and employers soon began to see the advantages. They especially liked the cost savings—on security, utilities, cleaning, coffee and all the other things people need at work. Naturally, many companies are now considering or implementing permanent remote-work policies.
But there are hidden costs to remote work. Along with risks to productivity and innovation and the stress of isolation and burnout, we are also seeing new patterns of inequity and exclusion emerging.
In fact, some experts are calling the remote-work economy of today a ticking time bomb.
Few workplaces are going fully virtual; most are adopting a hybrid model, with some people working at home part time or all of the time while the rest are together physically. Now, consider what happens in the physical workplace: Diverse groups come together to strategize, collaborate, socialize and turn the office into an idea factory. It’s where workplace culture is practiced and refined.
I see a real danger of two separate—and likely unequal—cultures developing in the hybrid model. Historically, one of the biggest challenges to workplace equity and inclusion is when some groups enjoy more exposure and relationship-building time than others. Employees who choose to or must work at home risk losing important professional connections. Think about it: Who gets mentored and who gets promoted when some are in front of the boss and others are in front of a screen?
There are hidden costs to remote work. Along with risks to productivity and innovation, and the stress of isolation and burnout, we are also seeing new patterns of inequity and exclusion emerging.
Companies that offer remote work as an option should consider that some employees won’t have much of a choice. For the time being, many parents have no recourse but to stay home because their children’s day care or schools are closed—and as this issue’s cover story explains, they will largely be women. In fact, 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org. That shocking statistic bodes terribly for gender equity in the decade to come.
We have already seen that when employees are strongly encouraged or required to work from home, many won’t be able to do their jobs effectively, risking their job security. Rural or lower-income households may not have fast enough Internet capacity to support workable video calls. Other workers won’t have a dedicated, distraction-free workspace and could see their productivity suffer.
Together, these factors are creating a looming crisis for equity and inclusion. HR leaders must carefully weigh all the implications when considering a permanent move to remote work and be intentional about ensuring that no one is left behind because of gender, age or economic status.
It’s possible to create strong, inclusive work-from-home cultures when the needs of all workers are considered, wherever those employees are. Successful remote workplaces thrive when HR leaders double down on culture, communication and a commitment to empower every individual to succeed.
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.
Photograph by Delane Rouse for HR Magazine.