Rotman Executive Summary

How to create a remote work policy that works for everyone

Episode Summary

What role should the office play, and can companies create equitable and sustainable WFH policies that work for all employees? Rotman's Sarah Kaplan and Carmina Ravanera weigh in on the future of hybrid work.

Episode Notes

What role should the office play, and can companies create equitable and sustainable WFH policies that work for all employees? Rotman's Sarah Kaplan and Carmina Ravanera weigh in on the future of hybrid work. 

Show notes

[0:00] In 2020, the world embarked on the great work-from-home experiment. And while as of 2022, businesses have called people back to the office, a big question mark remains

[0:41] Meet Sarah Kaplan and Carmina Ravanera from the Institute for Gender and the Economy, who explored the tension between what workers and businesses want and need when it comes to a remote work policy

[2:10] It turns out remote work can work. But businesses need to make it work for everyone

[2:35] Keep in mind the people who can’t work from home

[3:24] But for those who can, there are compelling financial upsides for employees – particularly for Black and LatinX employees – when allowed to work from home

[4:09] Remote work can also reduce workplace micro-aggressions and discrimination

[5:02] And WFH are really beneficial for those in caregiving roles

[5:34] But despite the benefits, companies can’t use a WFH policy on its own to make the workplace more equitable

[6:01] What’s the ideal worker, and why is it detrimental to people who can’t dedicate their whole selves to their jobs 

[6:41] There’s a persistent myth that remote workers aren’t as dedicated as those who come into the office. The ideal worker is one who shows up 

[6:54] And women and people of colour are more likely to suffer from these misconceptions

[7:16] Remote work policies that focus on employee monitoring can exacerbate mental health issues and company trust issues 

[8:02] You can’t just plonk a remote work policy onto an old system. To make it work, businesses will have to rethink the system

[8:36] The problem is that change is just hard. And leaders don’t always have time to think meaningfully about an equitable system redesign 

[9:09] But there are upsides, particularly for companies looking to improve inclusion efforts

[10:46] And with employers in a war for talent, it’s worth looking at creating a solution for everyone 

[11:35] Companies need to make the office worth their employees’ time 

[11:55] Hotelling doesn’t need to be a bad word. Letting employees make the trade off might be key

[13:01] What role to offices play in our social lives?

[13:20] Leaders should introspect on why people don’t want to come back

[13:45] Effective and equitable remote work policies need government and societal support to change underlying gender and racial inequalities as well

[14:19] It’s part of a holistic conversation. “Building trust in organizations is extremely difficult, and it's easy to erode. And so I think we are at a time where the role of the leaders, anybody who has other people who work for them,  supervisors all the way up to CEOs, their role in terms of being culture creators, and maintainers is going to become even more important.”

Episode Transcription

MH: In March 2020, the world embarked on the great work-from-home experiment. Prior to the pandemic, fewer than 4 per cent of Canadians work from their homes; at the height of lockdown orders in 2021, a full 32 per cent of Canadians logged into their offices virtually. And while businesses have been calling people back to the office, as of September 2022, one survey found that foot traffic in downtown cores was still 46 per cent lower than before the pandemic. Some very public calls for a full return to office have been met with derision and even mass quitting. 

SK: In all of my conversations with folks in corporate Canada, it's sort of their number one big question that they're asking: What do you know about this? Because they're understanding that the demands of workers are changing. And they don't know how to respond to it in terms of how to design work, and how to change their policies, and many of them are worried about the effects that could on inequality. 

I am Sarah Kaplan, and I'm the director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy and a professor at the Rotman School.

MH: The confusion makes sense. Many workers found freedom in working from home, and being asked to return to the office feels, for many, like an arbitrary decision. 

CR: It can improve well- being in a lot of different ways. It increases job satisfaction, it increases people's feelings of motivation when they're working, and it even increases job performance. And people, of course, don't have to waste time commuting. They can be a little more relaxed, they can have a more enjoyable working environment. 

I am Carmina Ravanera. I'm a senior research associate at the Institute for Gender and the economy at the Rotman School

MH:  In October 2022, Sarah, Carmina, and their colleague Kim de Laat, a former post doc at the Institute, published a paper called “The Future of Work: Will Remote Work Help or Hinder the Pursuit of Equality?” In it, they explore how the change in work arrangements might impact the push equality and equity. During their research, one thing became clear: remote work can work. But you can’t just impose old office norms onto this new structure. If you want things to be accessible and equal for all employees, companies are going to need to invest in making it work for everyone. 

This is the Executive Summary - I’m Megan Haynes, editor of the Rotman Insights Hub. 

Music fade in

MH: Let’s start with some important caveats.  

Not everyone can work from home. There are lots of jobs – from cleaners to dentists to loading dock workers to cashiers – who can’t benefit from a remote work policy. 

And there are people who enjoy coming into the office - maybe they like the separation between home and work life, or maybe they enjoy the social elements in seeing their colleagues. 

But importantly, there are folks who, because of their home or location circumstances, won’t be able to work remotely. That includes people who are living in domestic violence situations, and folks who might be lower income or live in more rural communities and who can’t get access to things like high-speed internet. 

 But for people who can - and want to - take advantage of a work from home policy, the new normal offers some intriguing possibilities, including some compelling financial arguments. 

CR: A researcher in the United States studied renters versus home ownership in relation to remote work and found that in the US almost 2 million workers are at what they call a tipping point of homeownership. So they could actually own property if they were able to work remotely, because they would be able to buy houses outside of the very expensive areas where  they have to work, but because they don't have that permanent telework option, they're not able to do that. 

MH: The ability to telework would be particularly beneficial to certain racial and ethnic groups: The study found that 26 per cent of LatinX workers and nearly 25 per cent of Asian employees were on that tipping point. 

There is also some early evidence that remote work policies help alleviate micro aggressions that women, people with disabilities and people of colour face in the workplace.

SK: I've talked to many, many pregnant women who have said that Zoom has been really great, because they were able to just continue working as normal without any weird comments, without any assumptions that they couldn't do their work. And then if they were feeling poorly at some point during the, during their pregnancy, they could just turn the camera off for that moment, and, you know, have their saltine cracker or whatever it is that they needed to do. 

MH: Carmina and Sarah also point to a study from the Future Forum group, which found that while 21 per cent of white workers wanted to return to the office, just 3 per cent of Black professionals wanted to return, citing the reduction in microaggressions and demeaning remarks as a primary factor. 

And of course, remote and work-from-home policies are particularly useful for people in caregiving roles. 

Since women are disproportionately laden with these responsibilities, remote work can be hugely beneficial in keeping them in the workforce by allowing them more flexible hours in their work days. 

CR: So when they have the option for remote work,  it's no longer so difficult to say I have to balance school pickup with the hours that you need to go into work, or help with homework or make lunches or any other thing that you might have to do for your dependents.

MH: So, it can be better for employees’ mental health, more equitable, and have a big financial upside for staff members. But a work-from-home policy isn’t the panacea to solving all employee problems. Part of the problem: most companies aren’t being purposeful enough. 

Musical interlude

MH: There’s this longstanding concept of the ideal worker – someone who can dedicate their entire work selves, and maybe even some of their home selves, to the job. 

Carmina says people who are seen as the ideal worker are often rewarded with promotions and raises. But this “ideal worker” norm has historically been detrimental to the careers of people who can’t – or don’t want to –dedicate their entire lives to their job, which can disproportionately impact people in caregiver roles. 

CR: There is a perception that remote work is going to solve all these problems of gender inequality in the workplace. 

MH: At the root of some of these issues is the stigma surrounding remote workers – a myth that those who work from home aren’t as productive or as dedicated as those who come into the office. 

And badly implemented policies can make these perceptions worse. 

Carmina points to pre-pandemic research that suggests women who opted for remote work options because of their caregiving responsibilities were evaluated more poorly when compared to men who opted for remote work for the same reasons. And women – particularly black women – were more likely to see wage penalties when they opted for remote work.  

There are also big concerns that mental health will take a further hit as the boundaries between home and work blur, since many organizations continue to uphold this “ideal worker” norm. 

CR: That can lead to things like monitoring employees online, which we saw a lot of that during the pandemic, a lot of organizations are tracking things like employee mouse clicks, or  what they're doing on their computer at a specific time of day. 

MH: The result is employees often feel glued to their screens – negating some of the flexibility benefits working from home provides. Sarah and Carmina stress that monitoring employees simply doesn’t work. Not only does it contribute to employee burnout, but it can also erode trust employees have in their organizations. 

SK: If we're really going to adopt remote work as a fundamental way that knowledge workers work, then we're going to have to not just say, just like plonk remote work on top of the old working system, we're going to have to actually redesign the system. And that's the piece that I think is still missing from most organizations’ conversations about how they would implement it.

Musical interlude 

MH: The problem for company leaders, of course, is change is really hard. 

SK: If you're already busy with a whole bunch of other things, and if we're coming to this economic downturn, to ask them to devote a whole bunch of time and attention to redesigning work practices, it’s a lot. And so they resist simply because of organizational inertia. And it'll be especially hard if you do it in the ways that Carmina and I and our co author Kim De Laat, who's done a lot of research in this area, the way that we're advocating, which is to redesign with attention to equity. That's even harder.

MH: But for businesses that are willing to take that time, the upsides could be unexpected, particularly for organizations looking to improve their equity and inclusion efforts.   

SK: I did talk to one MBA student who had  an internship on a trading floor, downtown on Bay Street. They had done it in person one summer, and then COVID happened. And so the next summer, they did this same kind of work, but over Zoom. And this woman commented that it was actually easier for her to access mentoring and training. because When you're on a trading floor,  to get the best mentorship, you actually need to see the computer screen that the trader is using, and then have access to asking the trader questions about what they're doing and why they're doing it. And if it's a whole bunch of interns crowded around one trader, it's hard to elbow your way to the front. And often women were feeling that they were being excluded from those mentorship opportunities. But on Zoom, where the mentor is just one box and all the other interns are just other boxes and that screen is another box, it gave everyone on the on the Zoom call equal access to seeing the screen and equal access to asking questions.

MH: For Sarah and Carmina, businesses are in a position to really, deeply, think about how to make a work-from-home policy that works for everyone. 

Just because working arrangements worked one way in the before times, it doesn’t mean we can’t figure out a way to improve it now. 

And it’s vitally important for businesses to figure this out – as Sarah puts it: 

SK: Every employer is still facing a war for talent, they want the best people. And so from an organization standpoint,  you don't want to have to lose some of your best talent because you're not offering the kinds of options that now workers are demanding.  

MH: It’s an extreme example, but when Elon Musk called Twitter employees back to the office and to brace themselves to be “hard core,” more than 1,200 people quit. Other organizations – including heavyweights like JP Morgan, Apple, Amazon and Starbucks have faced backlash when demanding workers return. 

Business leaders really need to start asking themselves what’s the point of the office, and why should employees be there? If the answer is simply “so I can make sure they’re doing their jobs,” companies probably need to start thinking of a more compelling argument. 

SK: Now if  most people are working from home, then when they have come to the office, it better be worth it.  And then it had better be worth it for the organization in terms of what they're getting out. If it's just people coming to work, and then sitting on Zoom, doing remote calls all day, that's not going to pay off.

MH: Solutions may not be straightforward, or even universally loved – but there’s probably a way to make it work: Just take something like hotelling, where people book a desk when they need to come into the office, rather than have one permanently assigned to them.

SK: Certainly for an organization, from an economic standpoint, hotelling is going to make a lot more sense because you can have a lot fewer desks and use a lot less space if you have remote workers and people only coming in some time. And so there can be huge financial savings that come with that. The question is Who benefits from those financial savings. If you said to an employee who loves their office like I do, I'm a nester, I want my own office, I want to door I can close, but if you told me,  we're going to save X amount of money if we get rid of the offices and that you just have an office when you come in, but it's not going to be your own personal little nest, and we're going to pass those savings along to you, I might  say, okay, I get it, this makes this makes sense. And you're compensating me in other ways. Or, they might say, if you're going to come in three days a week, you can have an office, but if you're going to be fully remote, or only come in once or twice a month, then you're going to have to be hotelling. And then I make the trade off for myself, which is the thing that I prefer, that may work a little bit better. 

MH: This might also be an opportunity for everyone - including employees - to think a bit about the role offices play in our social lives – and does that need to be the case? 

CR: I think this is a really good idea, is question[ing] why we are at a place where we get all of our social connection from work? And what does that mean for our communities and our societies as a whole? Should be we be rethinking where we get most of our social connection?, should it be at work? Or should it be with our communities and the people around us. 

MH: Ultimately, crafting a remote work plan is a chance for businesses to introspect on some of the reasons people don’t want to come back. 

SK: So If one of the reasons that people prefer to work from home is because they get a whole bunch of microaggressions when they come into the office,  and you want people to come into the office, more than maybe you have to address your workplace culture. 

MH: This isn’t going to be an easy shift. We haven’t even talked about how things need to change at a public policy level to address the underlying issues of racial and gender inequality that remote work can make worse. 

Sarah and Carmina say organizations and governments need to do more to make things like subsidized day care, or access to high-speed internet, and other supports that help address some of these systemic issues, more accessible for everyone. But ultimately, businesses need to be ready to invest in a strategy that works, because it matters for more than just employees’ working arrangements. 

SK: I think we need to think about this question of remote work in a more holistic conversation about creating greater equity and equality inside organizations. And remote work is just one of those pieces of the puzzle that can either exacerbate inequalities or it can actually help address them, but only if they're included in a suite of other organizational design choices.

Good remote work is going to have to come with an extensive investment and building a trust based organization… 

Building trust in organizations is extremely difficult, and it's easy to erode. And so I think we are at a time where the role of the leaders, anybody who has other people who work for them,  supervisors all the way up to CEOs, their role in terms of being culture creators, and maintainers is going to become even more important.

Music fade out 

MH: This has been the Rotman Executive Summary, a podcast bringing you the latest insights and innovative thinking from Canada's leading business school.  

Special thanks to Professor Sarah Kaplan and Senior Research Associate Carmina Ravanera.  We’ll be back in a few weeks with associate professor Aida Wahid to talk about the new face of executive boards. 

This episode was written and produced by Megan Haynes and Jessie Park. It was recorded by Dan Mazzotta, and edited by Avery Moore Kloss.   

For more innovative thinking, head over to the Rotman Insights Hub, and subscribe to this podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google podcasts, or Soundcloud. 

Thanks for tuning in.