The WFH Problem: Unconscious Bias and Hybrid Working Issues

July 14, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic triggered a global overhaul in working practices, with many employees trading in the morning commute for home working. While benefits included close proximity to the kettle and the chance to swap the heels for slippers, many realised that remote working was a notch more complicated than anticipated.

In this article we explore the potential stumbling blocks related to remote and hybrid working, and break down what employers and employees alike can do to combat the potential downsides of home working.

The problem – out of sight, out of mind

In the early days of remote working, many employers and employees experienced the growing pains of the changing workplace. Even in today’s technology friendly world, there is an unspoken expectation that remote workers need to assert their presence more forcefully to avoid being forgotten or overlooked.

Without being physically present in the office and ‘showing their face’, employees cannot benefit from the observation of their work. Less exposure between the employee and the office/their manager can create an invisible barrier preventing them from properly demonstrating their commitment to the job, team and organisation, and subsequently, to any chance of recognition or promotion. Leading talent agency Toptal cited this phenomena as "the brain's unconscious tendency to pay more attention to events and people that are nearest to us in both time and space."

It is often the case that remote workers feel on the back foot and put in longer hours to prove their worthiness over their in-office colleagues, causing inevitable stress and a risk of burnout. Stress in the workplace is hugely counterproductive and is widely accepted as being a costly and difficult issue for employers.  And if, despite their efforts, fewer remote workers are considered for promotions, whether or not this is a conscious decision, it will eventually lead to a lack of diversity in the organisation.  

Employers, therefore, need to find a way to mitigate against these ‘visibility issues’ and adapt to the (potentially inevitable) hybrid way of working where some employees will be constantly present in the office, some hardly ever or never, and the rest somewhere in between. If we accept that being ‘visible’ and ‘present’ is likely to result in favourable treatment it must, at the same time, also cause unfavourable treatment. As well as not building the best team possible based on skill and merit, this causes legal risks (see below).  

Some statistics

Following the announcement of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), conducted research into different models of working and to what extent any changes had impacted on an individual’s chances of getting promoted.  

In April 2020, it was recorded that occupations requiring higher qualifications and more experience were more likely to allow homeworking. Within those professional occupations, 69.6% of the workforce worked from home. Of those, around one-third worked more hours than usual (30.3%). This can lead to a whole host of issues, not least a negative impact on work-life balance and mental health.

Alarmingly, ONS’ research found that those employees who worked consistently at home were less than half as likely to have received a promotion in comparison to their office counterparts. These starkly negative statistics suggest that remote working and national lockdowns have put many at a huge disadvantage in their career progression.  

Perhaps things have improved since the start of the pandemic where we have seen a considerable advancement in remote working technology and employee engagement. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that employers will have eliminated all inequality caused by remote working and a cultural shift in attitudes (conscious and unconscious) does not happen overnight.  

Legal and commercial issues

Where there is inequality in the workplace, with some employees being overlooked and others being treated preferably as a result of their working arrangements, there will be legal risk and commercial headaches for employers.  

The employee who does not get promoted when they were the best person for the job, or whose pay and bonuses fall behind that of their colleagues, is unlikely to stay around for long. Worst case scenario, they could even bring a claim of constructive unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal.  

It may also result in claims of discrimination, which as well as potentially very costly for employers, could be a PR disaster. For example, if it is the case that, statistically, women are more likely than men to work from home and an employer has a practice of promoting or awarding favourable bonuses to those present in the office, a woman could have a claim for indirect sex discrimination.  

The anti-discrimination laws are there to level the playing field in the workplace, so where barriers exist which disproportionately affect people with a ‘protected characteristic’ (e.g. gender, disability, race, religion), there may well be a valid claim of discrimination.  

In addition to risks of claims in the Employment Tribunal, stress in the workplace which goes unnoticed and allowed to continue can, as touched on above, lead to burnout, illness, long term absences and the risk of personal injury claims. It is important to remember that not everyone is created equal: some employees might have pre-existing mental health issues (about which their employer does not need to know), which could be exacerbated by any new stressors, including those mentioned above caused by remote working.  

So, what can be done?

Despite the announcement that people can likely go back to office working from 19 July, hybrid working is probably here to stay. So employers will need to adapt and take proactive steps to remove barriers, reduce legal risk and foster a happier, healthier workplace for all. Here are some things that can be done to help combat the disadvantages faced by home workers:  

  • Schedule regular catch ups to ensure those at home aren’t left out in the dark. These could even be more regular than with those in the office, to help counteract a lack of FaceTime.
  • When scheduling meetings, allow for time before and afterwards for small talk, so those not in the office get the full benefit of getting together with colleagues.  
  • Follow a process when promoting or awarding pay rises or bonuses. Apply objective, fair criteria to eliminate things like ‘rapport’ coming into play which go against the remote worker.  
  • Use technology smartly, for example, group instant messaging, so that everyone has a space to build relationships and chat informally.  
  • Finally, and most importantly, create and maintain a company culture that encourages transparency and openness, so employees feel able to speak up and say when they’re feeling isolated, stressed or need to talk.

Like anything new, there will of course be a transition and experimentation period. This means that reviews and consultations with staff will be necessary to ensure that their set-up continues to be workable, appropriate for their circumstances, and enjoyable!  

Our employment lawyers are experts in making the world of work, work for you. Find out more about our employment law offering here.

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