Checkr chats with Dr. Alexandra Samuel ABOUT the impact of remote and hybrid
work on DEI.
Dr. Alexandra Samuel is a technology researcher, speaker, author, and data journalist who seamlessly weaves together both the social and business implications of remote and hybrid work. With over 25 years of experience researching the digital workplace, she helps companies and individuals navigate—and thrive in—the uncharted future of work.
Alex holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and her writing frequently pops up in The Wall Street Journal, The Harvard Business Review, and JSTOR Daily. Her latest book with co-author Robert Pozen, “Remote, Inc: How to Thrive at Work… Wherever You Are”, offers employers and their employees actionable and comprehensive strategies to build satisfying remote careers and productive hybrid teams.
Alex’s recent research, featured in the Microsoft New Future of Work Report 2022, focuses on hybrid equity; understanding who exactly gets to work remotely and how that divide can impact inclusion, promotion, and advancement in the workplace.
We had the privilege of chatting with Alex from her post in Vancouver, Canada to talk through the dimensions of hybrid equity. We cover:
Let’s dive in!
Hi Alex! What sparked your research into the effects of remote and hybrid work on DEI?
Alexandra Samuel: This line of inquiry emerged out of the parallel tracks of my personal life and my professional practice. While I have worked remotely on and off for more than 20 years, remote and hybrid work was relatively rare before the outset of the pandemic. Since then, much of the literature has ignored non-hybrid workers, covering the topic as if everybody in the world is now hybrid or remote, which is simply not the case.
As somebody who arrived at corporate speaking and consulting from a background of working in social change and working with mission-driven organizations, I am always thinking about the equity impacts and social impacts of these kinds of shifts.
I look at a lot of the research on hybrid work. Really, the percentage of the workforce that is in remote-capable jobs varies enormously from country to country and industry to industry. Even in Canada and in the US, industrialized countries with reliable internet access, maybe 50% of the workforce is in jobs that can be done remotely. In Canada it's probably even less, maybe 40%, because so much of the Canadian economy is extractive industries, and you cannot cut down a tree over Zoom.
As soon as I started looking at those numbers, I started worrying about the fact that, "Hey, we're having this conversation about the future of work as if this is the future of work, but it's only the future of work for, at most, half the population."
"Since [the pandemic], much of the literature has ignored non-hybrid workers, covering the topic as if everybody in the world is now hybrid or remote, which is simply not the case."
Even if there was no implication of that divide and no significance to that divide, I hate any public conversation that makes a portion of the population invisible. However, there are implications and the people we are making invisible are the people we always make invisible.
The people who are in remote-friendly jobs tend to be and are more likely to be white, are more likely to be affluent, and are more likely to have advanced degrees. Every level of privilege correlates with your likelihood of having a remote-friendly job. We know this and we've seen why it matters because we know that people of color died at disproportionate rates during COVID in part because they were more likely to be in jobs that involved exposure.
If you were in a white-collar job you could do at home, you were able to keep yourself much safer.
"Hey, we're having this conversation about the future of work as if this is the future of work, but it's only the future of work for, at most, half the population."
So, I feel in some ways culpable for this conversation where we're talking as if everybody is hybrid—because not everybody is hybrid—and so the first thing we need to do is stop talking about this as if it's a universal experience.
Hybrid inclusion is critically important because anything an organization can do to broaden the umbrella of people who have some access to the benefits of hybrid work is hugely beneficial for internal alignment and internal culture and inclusion, but also for creating pathways of opportunity for the people who so far are mostly working on site.
What are some of the barriers to entry for a remote-friendly position, particularly for blue collar workers looking to move into a white collar role?
Alexandra Samuel: Three to five years from now, the vast majority of white collar jobs will involve working with hybrid teams, where at least some people on the team are remote. Therefore every white collar job will routinely involve using collaboration tech like Zoom, Slack, Google Docs, Basecamp, etc.
This has already happened. The reality is that there are no white collar jobs that don't require a high level of comfort with digital collaboration tools.
As those of us who went through the transition from in-person to remote during COVID learned, it's not just about knowing where the mute and the “share my screen” button are in Zoom—we also figured out the etiquette of when to turn my camera on, and how quickly do I reply to Slack versus email? What's the best way to provide feedback on a Google Doc?
There are real productivity and social implications that go along with not just learning how to use the technology itself, but the more embedded view of that technology.
"Every level of privilege correlates with your likelihood of having a remote-friendly job."
For example, let's say you've been working in retail for five years and you're ready to apply for a junior sales position on a team, maybe even in your same company, and you put your application in and you've never worked on Zoom. You've never worked on Google Docs. None of those skills are on your resume, and the screening system simply disqualifies you because there are 50 resumes from people who have Slack, Zoom, Google Drive, and all of those competencies in their past roles. What happens in that world is that people who have frontline, customer-facing, onsite jobs are cut off from pathways to advancement that require you to have remote work skills.
Not only are you cut off from the path to advancement, but you’re also cut off from advancement through networking.
Let’s say a mid-career Black professional used to chat with a young Black colleague working in the mail room on her way into the office. Now, she's only in the office two days a week and she's there for meetings from 8:00 until 6:00 because she's packing them all into those two days. She's not spending that time talking to the young Black professional who just started working in the firm and needs a little guidance on navigating the pathway to advancement.
The opportunities for mentoring and for people in different kinds of marginalized positions to get access to the mid-career folks who would previously have mentored them are going to be radically diminished, and the opportunities to build those skills are also radically diminished.
"The opportunities for mentoring and for people in different kinds of marginalized positions to get access to the mid-career folks who would previously have mentored them are going to be radically diminished, and the opportunities to build those skills are also radically diminished."
Somebody working at an office before COVID might notice that they've lost contact with mid-level people in their firm and realized that they have to close the gap. Folks coming out of college or coming out of high school and going into the workplace for the first time in the post-pandemic world will not know what they're missing.
What they need to know is, "Hey, in the olden days where people worked in the office, you actually would've gotten to know the mid-career people in your firm. That's not going to happen organically anymore, so you need to develop a strategy for how you're going to meet professionals and people, executive and mid-career professionals who can mentor you.” Find out about the mentorship program in your organization, join a Toastmasters Club, go to the networking event. You are going to have to work harder to meet people who can help you advance in your career.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article,
Alexandra Samuel: First, we don't yet know what the impact of remote work is going to be on equity, and it's probably not going to be the same in every organization or for every demographic.
You can imagine a scenario where, as we move away from in-person work, people encounter fewer microaggressions at the office. They're spending more time, maybe, in audio-only or text-only interactions where there's perhaps less bias, and we see a gradual attenuation in discrimination where different forms of implicit bias have a lesser impact.
People with disabilities who were not being offered appropriate accommodations in the workplace may find that all of the energy that previously went into simply getting to the office is now saved. For neurodivergent people who may not read body cues the same way other people do, that stops being a disadvantage when you're not around a boardroom table and nobody has access to body language. These are optimistic scenarios, but they may happen in some organizations.
"...we don't yet know what the impact of remote work is going to be on equity, and it's probably not going to be the same in every organization or for every demographic."
People of color, who have had to endure microaggressions in the workplace for too long, may end up working from home more. Neurodivergent people may opt for a fully remote schedule so they can work in comfortable clothes instead of wasting energy on the sensory aversion of office clothes.
Now, we have a workplace where white people and neurotypical people end up coming into the office more often, and the path to advancement ends up rewarding people for contact time. Usually, that is not a deliberate strategy, but can happen simply because leaders say to themselves, "Oh, I see you here working, therefore I give you that promotion or I give you that growth opportunity."
Both of these scenarios can happen, and the only way to know which one of them is happening or which combination is happening is to pay attention to what’s happening in the office, track the relationship between time in the office and stretch opportunities, growth opportunities, promotion opportunities, and then adjust accordingly.
The future of work and hybrid equity remains largely uncertain. What do employers need to know about the future?
Alexandra Samuel: The thing that I am saying in every one of my talks now—and I cannot underline it enough in this context—is we are not going to get it right this year. We're not going to get it right next year.
It took 150 years to create the workplace of 2019. It took centuries of technology advancement, evolving labor laws, and multiple countries worth of learnings to shape the workplace in 2019. It had its pathologies, it had its virtues, but there wasn't anything you saw in the office of 2019 that came out of the blue that year.
The number one thing I want people to understand when they're thinking about, "What do I need to do to ensure fair opportunities for hybrid work? What do I need to ensure that hybrid work does not get in the way of our recruitment goals, does not get in the way of our retention goals? What do I need to do to make hybrid work an asset to our DEI strategy in the coming years?" All of those are questions you need to be prepared to answer over a period of time, to get wrong, to correct, to get wrong again, to correct a little better.
"We need to give ourselves at least as much time to get it right as we've spent improvising over the past two years."
It's going to be a learning process, and what I would really encourage organizations to think about is: what is it that we need to figure out? What we know now is what we need to figure out, because we've learned enough through all the overnight, crazy improvisation of COVID to realize what could go wrong if you do remote work without planning.
We need to give ourselves at least as much time to get it right as we've spent improvising over the past two years. Organizations need to be thinking in terms of, "Where do we want to be by 2025? And what are the things we should try and what is our learning strategy going to be so that by the time two or three years roll around, by the time we have to sign another lease on our space, we kind of know what we're doing?"
I understand most businesses feel accountable on the basis of quarterly results. I know it's not easy. When the board or key stakeholders ask you, "Well, how's hybrid work going?" no one is going to answer, "Well, we're getting started and we'll let you know in three years." That just doesn't fly in our business environment, and unfortunately, very few organizations are prepared to be honest about how long things take. But you might need to keep that lens to yourself as a CEO or a manager or a HR leader, reporting on hybrid equity incrementally—while keeping in mind that it’s going to take us, collectively, years to build successful, and equitable, hybrid and remote workplaces.
Thank you so much, Alex!
Alexandra Samuel: Thank you!
Find more about Alexandra Samuel on her website here and keep up to date with new research and insights on hybrid equity and remote work via newsletter, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Her latest book, “Remote, Inc.”, teaches you the essential skills needed to thrive while working from home, and can be purchased here.