The COVID-19 pandemic popularized the hybrid work model, in which employees have the option to work both remotely and in-office. This offers them more flexibility and may also improve their work-life balance. However, this model can have undesirable effects on equality in the workplace. 

Researchers at Rotman School of Management’s Institute for Gender And The Economy (GATE) looked into these effects on different communities in a report titled “The Future of Work: Will Remote Work Help or Hinder the Pursuit of Equality?” The researchers involved are GATE Senior Research Associate Carmina Ravanera, Professor Kim de Laat from Waterloo University, and GATE Director Sarah Kaplan. 

The winners and losers of the hybrid model 

When the pandemic first hit, remote work allowed employees to free up time from long commutes and find affordable housing outside of costly urban areas. However, the enjoyment of remote work has come at a cost, one particularly concerning for women and racialized workers.

Some workers report that the option to choose their own hours and work remotely helped them to find adequate work-life balance. However, this was most common among workers who did not have children. Remote work also potentially creates mental health related challenges as individuals feel that they are missing out on being a part of a community.

When considering women who have just given birth and people with specific accessibility needs related to mobility, remote work can highly benefit them by allowing them to work from anywhere. However, the Future of Work report notes that remote work may compound existing stigmas surrounding these groups: “remote work does not fit within the pervasive and stereotypical ‘ideal worker’ norm, where employees show that they are completely dedicated to work,” it states. These harmful perceptions disproportionately affect women, and are more significant for Black women as compared to white women. 

Furthermore, remote workers miss out on face-to-face networking opportunities. In the long term, the unequal impacts of hybrid work may increase barriers to higher leadership positions, which could prevent the perspectives of marginalized groups from informing organizations’ operating policies. 

Students are suffering in the hybrid model 

The topic of hybrid and remote work environments is an all too-relevant discussion for graduating students at U of T and those who partake in co-op and internships. 

Vivian Lai is a fourth-year student studying economics and industrial relations and human resources. Lai has completed both in-person and online internships. “I personally feel that while remote internships are better for efficiency in task completion or technical skill building, they still fail to encapsulate the in-person aspect of being part of an organization for a few months,” wrote Lai in an email to The Varsity. In GATE’s report, 90 per cent of Canadians found themselves more productive when working remotely. 

“Even though remote internships gave me a solid grasp on the technicals while doing tasks in my own time, it’s very hard to feel the corporate culture or network with my peers through the screen,” continued Lai. Networking is a vital part of any internship or new-graduate role, and maintaining connections made virtually is challenging. Students may also find it easier to network in person as they can grab coffee and make conversation with coworkers without the need for a screen or meeting invite. 

This can become even more challenging for minorities within the workforce because of the isolation they already experience in person due to discrimination. 

Changes for the better 

According to the report, there are still ways that organizations can make hybrid environments healthier for all employees, namely creating policies to remove the stigma, work designs to facilitate different forms of work, and organizational initiatives. 

Remote work policies must work with organizational and public policies that target gender and racial discrimination. In developing these policies, organizations can target the systemic issues that affect the way employees identifying with an affected community are viewed while working in a remote or hybrid work setting. 

As suggested by the report, in order to ensure that this form of injustice does not persist, there must be meaningful steps forward in developing appropriate public and organizational policies that ensure that women and racialized people are not experiencing severe penalties to their careers such as low wages and lack of growth. 

Moreover, creating meaningful and purpose-driven networking opportunities online is incredibly important. Firms must think of ways to make these events not just black squares on a screen. Attending an event should not feel like a chore for employees; firms should consider different ways to make online events feel genuine to the participants. 

Ultimately, not everyone starts in the workforce at a level playing field; some may come from racialized communities, low socioeconomic backgrounds, or historically disadvantaged groups. Reports such as this are helpful in the development of marginalized communities within the workforce. As the office work environment is redefined and evolves from the pandemic, it is important to consider possible ramifications that could affect marginalized communities.