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The Complexity of Equity in Remote Work

A diagram depicting asynchronous and synchronous work with various icons.

“We need to bring people back to the office!”

“Remote work is more equitable!”

Chances are a leader in your organization has proclaimed one of these statements recently. Bravo if you’ve heard both – in the same meeting. (You’re probably not alone.)

If you’d like me to tell you which is true/correct/right, I have some unfortunate news. Neither.

If you’d like me to tell you what to do…well, that’s not going to be an easy answer either. 

What I can do is tell you what remote work looks like done well, when it makes sense, and when it doesn’t. Buckle up: the future of work is a bumpy road. 

The Pros of Remote Work

Many remote work enthusiasts like to sell the idea with visions of digital nomads artfully dividing their time between writing code and eating paella in Spain or getting certified as a yoga instructor in Bali. As someone who’s been working remotely on-and-off since 2011, I find this vision to be the purview of dependent-free, twenty-something professionals who are the picture of health – in other words, a minority of the workforce. Most of us are not in our twenties, have dependents (whether children or parents or other humans), and are not perfectly healthy.

And yet, remote work is actually best suited to the rest of us. Professionals living with disabilities have been asking for remote work optimization for years as it is ideal for someone who could contribute their strengths more easily if they didn’t have to negotiate leaving the house. In addition, those of us with caretaking responsibilities or simply wishing to not spend 3 hours a day commuting (my standard commute when I lived and worked in New York City) can benefit tremendously from remote work. It’s also a great option for those of us who are the “first and onlys” in our organizations who want to minimize the constant microaggressions and just do what we need to do with no muss, no fuss, thank you very much. And finally, remote work is a great way to avoid those open floor plans, a.k.a. knowledge worker sweatshops, which twenty years of research have shown are a bad idea (see here, here, here, and here).

But if we’re not traveling the world, we need to get real about what remote work actually looks like and what it takes to make remote work, well, work.

What Remote Work Actually Looks Like

Remote work is first of all, isolating. We can take steps to counter that isolation, but there’s no getting around the fact that we start there. You may already be isolated, by nature of a disability or being a new parent, but for anyone else, remote work means a loss of daily in-person interactions, both casual and meaningful. Even if you have more meetings working remotely than you did in person, there’s a social toll when all those interactions have agendas and witnesses. Gone are the reassurances of a friendly joke or the social lubricant of water cooler conversations. Whether you have a good day or not is now more heavily dependent on your own ability to emotionally regulate and deal with your moods and your mind. There’s no distracting colleague who comes in like a whirlwind with an infectious energy, or a cute coffee barista who flirts just enough to put some pep in your step as you walk to work. You must deal with the cobwebs of your mind more starkly, and that is hard for most people.

Remote work works best when it is asynchronous, meaning people collaborate on a project independently. In their book Remote Works, authors Ali Greene and Tamara Sanderson highlight some of the best practices of remote working, including the need for clear documentation and protocols for using multiple communication channels. (Full disclosure: Ali and Tamara and I share the same publisher, Berrett-Koehler, which is how I came to learn about their fabulous book.)

However, some synchronous work is also necessary, and what I found most helpful about Ali and Tamara’s book is how they break down when asynchronous versus synchronous collaboration is required. As I summarized to my team after reading their book

Go Asynchronous When…

  • Planning and coordinating a project
  • Getting Things Done
    (the creation and execution of materials/deliverables)
  • Thinking, Reflecting & Reasoning
    (This gives time for people to think and maybe have their best idea about a project in the shower or while taking a hike).

Go Synchronous When…

  • Brainstorming, Iterating, and Clarifying
  • Building Momentum and Celebrating
  • Relationship Building and Resolving Conflict
    (So…the bulk of the work required for building an inclusive and equitable culture)
A diagram depicting asynchronous and synchronous work with various icons.

That last bullet is key. Relationship-building and addressing conflict is the key to inclusion and equity, and change management in general.

And yet, as the authors point out, resolving conflict takes longer in a remote world. You can’t leave a meeting feeling uneasy and then just stop by your boss’ desk to clear things up. You might have to wait until your next check-in, a week from now. And what if the conflict is with a colleague you don’t meet with one on one? How do you clear things up?

These two facts – that conflict takes longer to resolve in a remote world, and that resolving conflict should happen in synchronous settings (i.e., over video conference or the phone or in person, not email or chat) – is the root cause of frustrations with remote work in my opinion.

And, it also leads us to ask – what do you do in the interim with your frustration and feelings? Does your anger bubble over? Do you sweep things under the rug, thinking it’s too petty a week from now to bring up the thing that bugged you?

Few organizations are great at resolving conflict, and we’ve just made it harder with remote work. And few people are self-aware at regulating the feelings of unresolved conflict over a long period of time. 

To make remote work work, we need to build the critical skill of emotional regulation and conflict competence across all members of our organization.

When Remote Work Makes Sense…And When It Doesn’t

Can you have a remote-based firefighter? How about a nurse? Or a therapist?

(Answer: No, maybe, yes.)

The question of whether remote work works depends on what the job is. So start there. Stop asking, Should our company go fully remote? Start asking, Which jobs can be fully remote, which jobs need to be hybrid, and which jobs need to be on site?

The answers to these questions should be based on what is in the best interest of the organization’s mission, vision and goals, not what is easiest for you to manage as a manager. 

For example, a local news organization can justifiably require journalists reporting on their community to actually live and work in the community (though they may not need to come into the office). Perhaps the CFO can be remotely based in another state. But the security guard for the building needs to be on site. 

Given this arrangement, however, the entire company must be able to communicate and coordinate with remote and on-site colleagues, so one remote job means the company must be remote-friendly. 

Remote-friendly means:

  • There are clear communication protocols over digital channels, including how to build relationships and resolve conflicts (see more on this below).
  • Roles that previously did not require digital communication (such as security guard) are given ample and high-quality training on using digital communication channels.
  • Meetings are well-designed. This includes a purpose or “why” to every meeting. You should also set aside time for social connection, such as starting each meeting with light, non-controversial connection questions, like “What’s your favorite album?” or “What would you do with $1000 if you had to spend it today and can’t donate it to charity?”
  • Processes are documented (and followed!)
  • Salaries may be adjusted for the cost of living in another area, but they should also be adjusted for the additional expense employees bear when they work remotely, such as the cost of reliable WiFi, ergonomic chairs and equipment, and being able to afford a home with an office. (Taken together, you’re probably not going to be able to reduce the salaries of remote employees, and will likely need to increase some of them.)
  • You are mitigating for proximity bias in promotions and project assignments.

If a job requires a person be in the office, then organizations should:

  • Ensure each person has a permanent desk and a place to store their things. (I recently saw an open office space where it was unclear where an employee would hang their coat after coming in from the cold.)
  • Build actual offices. With windows and doors. 
  • Designate some collaboration spaces (but not too many, because, again, we’re not looking to create a knowledge worker sweatshop).

Hybrid work will require both of these accommodations, which may seem like an increase in overhead for most organizations. However, this can be offset by innovative uses of space. For example, Rocky Mountain Public Media, a public media organization in Colorado, renovated their building to include community spaces for media education, community gatherings and musical performances. As an organization that seeks to serve and connect Coloradons through great content, they’ve built a building that can do both! 

Instead of just thinking about how you can get employees to serve your organization’s mission and goals, leaders should begin to think about how both job functions and the creative use of physical space can serve the organization.

The Remote Work Emotional Toolkit

If your organization has remote or hybrid workers, then you’ll need to train and support a new set of skills with all staff, not just those working remotely. This Remote Work Toolkit contains the knowledge and skills of:

  • Trusting relationships
  • Emotional agility
  • Conflict competence

Trusting Relationships

When it comes to building trusting relationships, I find the most helpful framework to be Brené Brown’s BRAVING acronym. As you’ll see in the video, she outlines the values and observable behaviors that build trust: boundaries, reliability, accountability, vault (meaning keeping things confidential), integrity, non-judgment and generosity.

At Brevity & Wit, we often use the BRAVING framework as an inventory for leaders and teams. We ask each team member to rate themselves on a scale of 1-5 on each value and observable behavior, and then to rate themselves as a team (because sometimes the sum is greater than the parts, and sometimes not, meaning trustworthy individuals are functioning in an environment that erodes trust).

Emotional Agility

Emotional agility, as defined by Susan David, enables people to approach their inner experiences in a mindful, values-driven, and productive way rather than buying into or trying to suppress them. It’s a critical skill for all managers in a remote or hybrid environment, and one that Brevity & Wit teaches in our Inclusive Manager Program.

In a seminal Harvard Business Review article on the topic, David and collaborator Christina Congleton lay out the four practices that lead to emotional agility:

  • Recognize your patterns. You have to realize that you’re stuck before you can initiate change.
  • Label your thoughts and emotions. Labeling allows you to see them as transient sources of data that may or may not prove helpful.
  • Accept them. Respond to your ideas and emotions with an open attitude, paying attention and letting yourself experience them. They may be signaling that something important is at stake.
  • Act on your values. Is your response going to serve your organization in the long term and take you toward being the leader you most want to be?

There’s also an assessment individuals can take to evaluate their own emotional agility.

Conflict Competence

We often have two responses to conflict: Avoid it or be confrontational. But there is a third way: conflict competence.

I first learned about conflict competence from Brevity & Wit Senior Consultant Sabine Marx, who is certified to administer the Diamond Power Index, a helpful assessment tool that assesses an individual’s and team’s use of power. Julie Diamond, creator of the Diamond Power Index and author of Power: A User’s Manual, elegantly defines conflict competence as “the ability to engage productively despite differences, conflicts, and disagreements. [This] includes the ability to raise controversial topics, have difficult conversations, hold people accountable, deliver straightforward feedback, and intervene appropriately when interpersonal difficulties and conflicts arise.”

I realize that is a tall order for most workplaces today – remote or not.

And yet…the lack of conflict competence is often the single biggest barrier to equitable and inclusive workplaces. Brevity & Wit sees it all the time with our clients and hears about it from leaders desperately trying to change their organizations but suffering from what one CEO termed “leadership drag” in their senior staff. And yes, remote work is making it harder to display conflict competence for all the reasons I outlined above.

The solution is leadership development – both in terms of workshops or training AND coaching. Coaching is necessary because often an individual’s ability to display conflict competence is because of personal and individual barriers, such as their beliefs about right and wrong, how they were raised, and their past experiences in workplaces. A workshop can help set the standards expected of leaders and managers, but only coaching will help people work through their thorny pasts and beliefs to engage with a new way of addressing conflict.

The Bottom Line

Equity is the promise that employees will get the resources they need to contribute their strengths to an organization. If organizations want to realize that promise, they must be flexible but also discerning in what jobs can be done remotely and which ones cannot. And when a job can be done remotely, they must be willing to provide the employee with different supporting structures than they traditionally have. It would be unethical and out of integrity to strike a bargain where an employee can work remotely so long as they take on the additional expense of resources previously provided by the office (like WiFi, a computer, etc.)

When negotiating conversations about remote work, leaders and managers should first be clear about the organization’s vision, mission and goals – and ensure all employees are clear on this, too. Employees should know how their job fits into the organization’s goals. When employees and managers are aligned about the purpose of their work, it becomes easier to have a conversation about whether remote work is a good fit. And organizations must invest in giving their managers and employees the emotional toolkit they need for this new way of doing work.

The best leaders and managers of tomorrow will not be focused on right or wrong when answering the question of remote work; they will be focused on symbiosis. How can the employee and the organization both win? How can we achieve something great while ensuring employee needs are met? How can I adjust my management style to bring out the best in remote employees and the ones in the office? How can I better regulate my emotions in this new world, and help my team regulate theirs?

After all, as Darwin famously explained, it’s not the strongest or the most intelligent ones that survive, but the ones most adaptable to change