The WFH Series: The Troublesome Issues Involved in Managing Remote Workers Fairly
How Those Working from Home Will be Evaluated and Managed Will Become a Very Real Issue Very Soon and Be a Stumbling Block for Companies and Employees Moving Forward
Certainly, managing remote workers - whether they are 100% WFH (work from home) or partially remote - is a different kind of management in practice, as one has to manage less based on observation and more based on performance - which is not a bad thing overall! However, one of the very real, and very important, issues that all organizations, private and public alike, will have to deal with as work increasingly shifts to a remote or hybrid format is a new form of discrimination - that being against remote workers.
One of the very real fears - and a founded one - for remote workers is that they can become “invisible” not just to their colleagues, but to their bosses as well. In fact, research has shown that distance work may indeed negatively impact career advancement and promotions, and this is rooted in the fact that those working remotely inescapably “suffer from a lack of face time with colleagues and managers.” Indeed, concern over the discrepancy in promotion rates between remote and on-site employees existed well before the pandemic, as research showed that distance workers experienced as much as 50% less career advancement as their in-office counterparts. Just this year, Cathy Merrill, the CEO of Washingtonian Media, warned directly of this in her controversial opinion piece for The Washington Post, stating bluntly: “Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know” (n.p.). 
And so, the whole issue of who works from home may in fact have important implications, not just for individual employee careers, but on the demographic makeup of an organization's managerial ranks. This is true especially in cases where workers, as indeed often is the case, “self-select” for remote work status. As prior research has shown, if given the option to work from home, those that will choose to do so are often female, often those with young children at home, and often, people of color. Thus, some researchers have warned that allowing workers to self-select to work remotely will likely, overtime, lead to a managerial and executive class that is not reflective of either of the organization as a whole or the wider community. In short, increased levels of remote work could well lead to a more white, more male managerial class in organizations, compounding existing discrimination issues.
And so the matter of who will work from home, and how it will be determined who will be allowed and/or encouraged to work from home is a matter of significant concern moving forward. Up until now, both in the private and public sectors, remote working status has largely been determined by an interplay of the nature of the work and yes, the employees’ personal preferences in this regard. While certainly it would be impractical for any business or government agency to say that either managers or workers should be the sole determinant of who does get to work remotely, the self-selection problem is one that would appear, based on research evidence to date pre-dating the pandemic, to be very real. While this author certainly does not advocate stripping workers of their ability to choose to work from home, based on their personal circumstances and preferences, it will be incumbent on management of all organizations to closely monitor the impact of remote/hybrid work on employee advancement, compensation, longevity on the job, etc. Certainly, it will become important for HR management to effectively and repeatedly communicate with managers throughout the organization as to any patterns that might emerge that are concerning in this regard, both for organizational performance reasons and yes, out of legal concerns.
From the author’s perspective, while there are indeed potential downsides in terms of career advancement and even discrimination facing remote workers, it is really unavoidable to have the worker be the key driver of making decisions regarding what type of working arrangement is best for him/her. Yes, inevitably those choosing to work from home will have different demographics than the workforce for an organization or a government agency as a whole, particularly being younger and more female in nature, the choice of the employee is fundamental to success in whatever work arrangement he or she might end up with their employer. Yes, we will have workers of all ages - not just older workers as has been popularly perceived – who will want to work only in the traditional office setting. Conversely, we will have workers who, especially after the year plus of their own pandemic work from home experiences, will only want - or even consider - working either totally or largely on a remote basis. They will run, not walk, back to their traditional offices!
And so within all organizations and government agencies, there has to be latitude built in to let the employee and his or her desires in terms of their work arrangements be the key driver of the decision process on individual work arrangements. By no means should the employee have total say in the matter. However, it is fundamental that employees be given the opportunity - and some might even label it now close to a “right“ - to be at least somewhat determinative of their work arrangement. Again and again and again in the research that has been performed to date on what makes for successful WFH/hybrid work arrangements, employee involvement in the process has been found to be fundamental for success - even with the ancillary problems self-selection might bring down the line. And taking it one step further, the ability of teams to be able to schedule when they need to all be in the office in order in order to do collaborative work together in the best fashion possible is also highly advisable. By giving team members the ability to self schedule, within certain parameters such as office space availability and, as one author noted not simply saying “let’s take every Monday and Friday off,” would be well advised.
The crux of the matter is that whoever is working at home, and how and why they were designated to do so, all managers will be challenged to change their mindset on how they supervise employees work. They need to recognize that indeed “face time” is less important in the new world of work, and they should focus on managing more on results and outcomes, as opposed to managing by observation. Again, this highlights the very real need for ongoing and effective training of managerial personnel in how they should manage in a non-traditional, or hybrid and remote-based work environment, as opposed to the ways one has managed employees in the past.
 Morgan, Kate. 2021. “Why In-person Workers May Be More Likely to Get Promoted - Remote Work Has a Lot of Benefits, But One Major Drawback: It May Be Harder to Climb the Career Ladder When You’re at Home.” BBC.com, March 7, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210305-why-in-person-workers-may-be-more-likely-to-get-promoted.
 Merrill, Cathy. 2021. “Opinion: As a CEO, I Worry About the Erosion of Office Culture with More Remote Work.” The Washington Post, May 6, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/05/06/ceo-i-want-my-employees-understand-risks-not-returning-work-office/.
 Signal360. 2021. “WFH: Aberration or Future?: Work from Home Expert Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford Economist, Says Office Space Will Get More Collaborative, and You’ll Still Be Working from Home (Just Not As Much).” Signal Insights, March 1, 2021. https://pgsignal.com/2021/03/01/how-your-company-is-going-to-change-post-pandemic/.
 Laurent, Lionel. 2021. “It Really Is Back to the Office This Time: As the vaccine rollout gathers pace, pay attention to what companies do with their staff — not what they say.” Bloomberg, April 9, 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-04-09/it-really-is-back-to-the-office-this-time.
About David Wyld
David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld.
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