POSTED: November 19 2021
Guest Blog: Avoiding discrimination in the hybrid workplace

Guest Blog: Avoiding discrimination in the hybrid workplace

The following article was written by Chris Salmon, Director at Quittance.  

Addressing the government’s focus on getting people back into the workplace, Rishi Sunak said that young people in particular risk “losing vital job experience and the opportunity to learn from more senior staff and build networks”. In the recent interview with LinkedIn he added that it is “really important” for people to return to their workplaces in person, where possible. Mr Sunak is essentially saying that, according to his experience in the workplace, people who work from home may be at a disadvantage when compared with their office-based counterparts.

In April 2021, the ONS published research on home working between 2011 and 2020. When compared to their office-based counterparts, the data showed that home workers:

  • Were less than half as likely to be promoted
  • Were only two-thirds as likely to get a bonus
  • Worked nearly double the unpaid overtime

The fact that the research was conducted over a period that predates COVID should raise the alarm with employers. There has been a step change in the number of employees who will be working from home in the ‘new normal’. This change could lead to a two-tier workplace that could harm morale, lower productivity and, in some cases, expose employers to allegations of discrimination.

Employers will be horrified at the very suggestion of discrimination occurring in their businesses. Even with the best of intentions, however, unintentional discrimination against remote workers may already be prevalent. The following examines how a two-tier workplace could emerge in a post-COVID world, and what employers can do to prevent it.

Embracing the hybrid workplace

Where possible, many businesses and employees will want to take advantage of the real benefits afforded by home working. The past 18 months has demonstrated that employers can benefit from greater employee productivity, reduced operating costs, access to a geographically-wider pool of talent and improved staff retention. Many employees have enjoyed the flexibility and improved work/life balance. Some will have missed the face-to-face comradery of the office environment, but few will have missed the daily commute. With an estimated 1 in 20 online job ads including the terms ‘dynamic’, ‘hybrid’ or ‘home working’, it appears that UK employers are embracing home working. Hybrid working, where employees split their time between the employer’s workplace and working remotely, is increasingly being seen as a ‘best of both worlds’ option.

Home working won’t be a good fit for every business. Most businesses will typically have some home working compatible roles, some roles that can’t be carried out remotely, and others needing deliberation.

The pressure to migrate to home working could come from employees or employers. Either way, employees and employers may want or expect different things. There may be differences of opinion about what roles can be carried out effectively at home, and which employees should be required or eligible for home working. It is therefore critical that a clear and consistent home working policy is established, ideally following a consultation phase with employee representatives.

Home working policy

Drafting or updating your home working policy is key to ensuring that home working doesn’t create any unfair disadvantages. The policy should set out the qualifying criteria for employees wanting to work from home. To avoid a sense of unfairness emerging, the policy should explain the underlying reasons why some staff may be able to work from home and others may not. If your business requires some employees to work from home, the policy should explain why. When drawing up and evolving the policy, consulting with employees or their designated representatives can help establish a sense of fairness and buy-in. Your remote workers could even nominate someone to represent their interests.

How employers can address the risk of discrimination

The sudden switch to home working during the pandemic was an unexpected trial for the viability of home working. As a valid test, however, this fell short as it took place under emergency circumstances. There may have been a ‘blitz spirit’ during the lockdowns, but employee and employer tolerance will quickly erode if home working is not properly implemented moving forward.

The home worker’s workspace

Employers may be surprised to learn that that under The Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999, their duty of care for the health, safety and wellbeing of home workers is exactly the same as it is for office-based staff. A risk assessment of the home worker’s working environment is essential in order to identify and manage risks. It is now common practice for risk assessments to be carried out remotely using a self-assessment questionnaire.

Chris Salmon, Director of Quittance said, “An audit trail of a suitable risk assessment is usually a requirement of employers’ liability insurance policies. Insurers cannot refuse to pay compensation to an injured employee, but it is not unheard of for an insurance company to reclaim their losses if an employer fails to carry out the proper checks and an employee is then injured.”

HR managers may want to go the extra mile and hold a risk assessment session by video conference. Employees will be able to carry out a walkthrough of their home work space and HR can offer valuable health and safety input, and offer recommendations about optimising the work space. A video or audio recording of the session will provide a robust audit trail of a thorough risk assessment. Risks to occupational health, such as back pain, RSI and stress should also be considered. Risk assessment reviews should be carried out periodically, inline with in-office reviews, or as needed.

Communication

Homeworking isn’t for everyone. Some employees, younger ones in particular, thrive in a person to person environment. Remote working team members may feel isolated and ‘out of the loop’. If home workers are not encouraged to feel part of the team, morale will suffer, productivity will drop and employee retention will be an issue. A common mistake is for businesses to overburden remote employees with emails in an attempt to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction. From a home workers perspective this can feel like an uncoordinated barrage of communication that consumes much of their working day to process.

Video or audio conferencing technologies enable businesses to include home workers in regular face-to-face team meetings and other communications. Interpersonal relationships can be strengthened and the email burden reduced.  

Communication will play a pivotal role in managing a dispersed team. The lack of visibility and face-to-face interaction between managers and employees poses a real challenge. Home working policies should frame these challenges and set out how employers and employees should keep each other updated, and how frequently. Even with a clear policy and regular meetings, a remote employee might still feel ‘out of sight and out of mind’. Impromptu watercooler chats, office banter and lunch with colleagues can be an enormous part of an employee feeling included in the social fabric of working life. Attempts to emulate these factors for remote workers might feel contrived, but it is important to try.

Office drinks over Zoom and other virtual gatherings can be effective and should be organised and encouraged. Managers might also check in with their team members with a simple ‘good morning’ message. Alternatively, a brief daily virtual huddle can bring together a dispersed team. Scheduling regular team communications by video call will go a long way towards emulating the face-to-face connection that remote workers miss out on. Some businesses require all attendees to attend meetings virtually if one or more participants is working remotely.

Working hours

Under the Working Time Regulations 1998, employees have a right to a break of at least 20 minutes a day, 11 hours rest between working days and 1 day off a week. Research has shown, however, that home workers tend to take shorter lunch breaks, fewer breaks generally and are more likely to work through bouts of sickness.

Home workers often feel they need to be ‘always on’. What if their manager calls when they are away from their home desk? An employee might just have popped to the bathroom, but outside of a face-to-face environment, the manager may wonder if the worker has been absent for hours. Managers may feel they need to make random spot checks, and employees may feel pressure to never leave their post. Remote working policies should explicitly address these issues, ensuring that workers feel able to take reasonable breaks and that managers don’t unfairly profile employees as ‘slackers’.

Common complaints among home workers include blurred lines between work and personal time and, in particular, feeling under pressure to answer emails late into the evening. Home working employees who feel they are unable to disconnect are particularly at risk of depression and mental health issues. At the very least, motivation and productivity will suffer if the home worker does not have sufficient downtime. A shared working hours policy should exist for home workers and office workers. The policy should make it clear when employees are expected to be contactable.

Managers might want to avoid sending emails to employees in the evening. If late emails are necessary, they should be CC’d to office-based workers and home workers at the same time. Except in real emergencies, it should be made clear that an out-of-hours reply is not expected. If employees will be working on a hybrid basis, the policy should clearly state which days, or under what circumstances, the employee will need to come into the office. The policy can also set a company-wide standard for the use of shared calendars, out-of-office email notifications and voicemail usage.

Training and career progression

Employees who regularly work from home will be less visible within an organisation. Home workers are at risk of being overlooked when it comes to opportunities for training, mentoring and career progression. Structured training should be accessible to all employees, wherever they happen to be based. Online training courses can be highly effective, but if the employee will need to attend periodic in-office training sessions, this should be stated in the remote working policy. Ensuring that homeworkers benefit equally from ad-hoc or impromptu mentoring will be more challenging however. Offering a semi-formal structure for mentoring may be one way to tackle this, such as mentors and mentees meeting in-person for a coffee once a month. If talented home working individuals go unnoticed, employers could also struggle to identify the best and most deserving candidates for promotion, bonuses and other opportunities.

Establishing a meritocracy that effectively tracks productivity and performance targets will be key. Cloud-based technology can play a central role in harmonising systems and fairly comparing the performance of home and office based workers equally. Senior management and HR should be aware of line managers’ unintentional bias towards physically-present staff, and ensure that all candidates for promotion are considered fairly.

Employers should tread carefully, however. Systems can now be used to track every aspect of an employee’s activities, including their search activity and social media and email usage. Some software can even facilitate keystroke logging and screen recording. Whether these measures are appropriate will depend on the nature of the role and the company’s culture and management style.

Home workers will understand the need for remote performance monitoring, but unnecessary monitoring will be seen as intrusive micromanagement. It is critical that, compared with office based workers, remote workers are not unfairly surveilled. If the decision is made to, for example, install monitoring software, the software should be installed on both in-office and remote equipment equally.

 

Costs and expenses

Home workers will end up paying for utilities, data and phone costs and other running costs that would otherwise be paid by employers if the worker was office-based. Office-based employees might also enjoy other perks like a subsidised canteen or gym membership.

Every endeavour should be made to provide parity across job roles, wherever the worker is based. The remote working policy should make it clear who will cover any additional costs employees might incur when working from home, and what work-related costs or expenses can be claimed by the employee. Employees can receive certain tax-free payments to help them cover any reasonable additional expenses incurred while working from home. It would be helpful for the remote working policy to offer clarity or advice on this point.

 

How home working can promote equality in the workplace

A well-drafted remote working policy will help businesses structure an open and fair migration to permanent home working. By canvassing input from company employees when drafting and evolving the policy, the risk of inadvertent discrimination against home workers can be mitigated. By embracing the broader opportunities of home working, employers can even strengthen their equal opportunities credentials.

According to Gov.uk, 19% of working age adults are disabled, an estimated 1m of whom are actively looking for work. Remote working opens up employment opportunities for people unable to commute, whilst giving employers access to a new pool of talent.

Nearly 30% of mothers with a child under 14 years either reduce their working hours or leave their jobs as they struggle to juggle work and childcare commitments. In many cases, the flexibility offered by home working resolves this conflict. Being in a position to offer home working to existing employees with children could also help improve employee retention.

Home working dovetails into government plans to level-up and unite the country as workers no longer need to be based near a company’s offices. As home working options make it easier for workers with certain protected characteristics to enter the workplace, there exists a greater chance that inequities between home and office workers could amount to discrimination. A fair, clear remote working policy will help to ensure a level playing field for all staff, creating a happier, more productive and diverse workplace.

Talk to advo today if you feel we can help your business with the issues mentioned in this article.