Are those who work flexibly discriminated against?

·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·5-min read
Woman in home office during Covid-19 lockdown
Despite the so-called ‘remote work revolution’ during the pandemic, remote workers are still at risk of missing out on the ‘water cooler’ moments in an office environment. Photo: Getty

As COVID-19 vaccinations are rolled out and case numbers fall, many businesses are facing a choice. Some companies will ask their workers to return to the office, while others will allow people to continue working from home. A growing number are considering a third option: Hybrid work.

Clearly there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to flexible working, as evidenced by the multitude of studies showing a divide in what workers want. For some, the thought of returning to commuting is a nightmare. Others are desperate to return to a defined workspace after a year at home.

An amalgamation of both, hybrid work offers greater flexibility for workers while maintaining certain structures. And it seems to be a popular option, with a survey of 4,500 people by Zurich Insurance revealing 59 percent of people would prefer to spend around half their working week at home.

With only some people in the office, however, remote workers becoming “out of sight, out of mind” employees. Present privilege, where flexible workers are discriminated against simply by not being present, has become a point of debate in the last year. It means people who work remotely, even part-time, may be treated differently because of it.

“Purely by being present, those within the workplace are privileged - the natural flow of communication within an office environment differs greatly from remote teams and could lead to those at home being at a disadvantage,” says Carrie Wilson, founder of Linguistica Recruitment Ltd.

“By nature, remote workers will potentially include higher numbers of mothers, people with disabilities & minority groups, which will likely hinder diversity initiatives.”

Read more: What to do if your employee doesn't want to go back to the office

Despite the so-called "remote work revolution" during the pandemic, remote workers are still at risk of missing out on the "water cooler" moments in an office environment. Sometimes, it’s these chance meetings — bumping into your boss in the kitchen, or chatting to a colleague over lunch — that can lead to new opportunities and chances to progress.

“They are missed out of work nights out, team socials and coffee chats,” says Natalie Gray, a life and progress coach. “They miss the Monday morning meeting or Friday ‘wrap up session’ because they don’t work those days or hours. People don’t include them in things as they maybe aren’t as visible as other colleagues. They may not be given the same opportunities to pick up new projects.”

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In some cases, Gray adds, managers may not fight so hard for a promotion for flexible workers or be less likely to give them helpful feedback. “Employers might ‘side-track’ working with a flexible worker if they get an out of office rather than waiting for the next day to talk to them directly,” she says.

And although many employers have been forced to embrace remote working because of COVID-19, not everyone is on board. Businesses have relied on remote teams to keep the wheels turning, but there is still stigma surrounding out-of-office work. As such, remote workers may be treated coolly by resentful colleagues, or those who see home-working as a way of avoiding hard work.

“In many companies, the traditional 9-5 or shift patterns is what people know, they have organised their life around it. Flexible workers may not be seen to provide equal value,” says Gray. “Have you ever seen somewhere refer to flexible workers with a hand gesture showing ‘inverted commas or air quotes’? It insinuates they are pretty pessimistic about people working flexibly.”

That being said, employers now know more about remote working than they did at the start of the pandemic. The positives are being recognised, such as more flexibility for workers, gains in productivity and engagement, and potentially lower overhead costs for employers. Although some businesses intend to return to the office 9-5, many will continue allowing people to work flexibly.

So if you think you are falling prey to present privilege or are being treated unfairly, what should you do?

Read more: Can your employer stop you from going on a foreign holiday?

Firstly, it’s important to gather evidence and data, so you have something to present to your manager or HR department if you do decide to take it further. “Do you notice you are being treated differently to others, if so start to take notes about this and reflect on what you find,” says Gray. “Ask yourself honestly if any feedback you are getting is discriminatory and raise your concerns with your boss if you feel you can.”

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It’s also important to call out if you feel you have been missed out of a communication or an important update, if you feel confident and safe to do so. If it is a one off, it may be a simple mistake, rather than something more sinister. If it was an accident, make sure people are aware that you are working flexibly.

“Don’t assume people know that you start an hour later than everyone - they might just think you are late coming online or into the office,” Gray says.

And remember, it is your employer’s responsibility to ensure all employees — including those working remotely — are kept in the loop, treated fairly and given the same opportunities as those in-house. Leaders need training to properly support remote workers. “They need to be open about their policy and celebrate their flexible working best practice, as well as help people access the right tools and technology,” says Gray.

And finally, employers need to be fully accepting of remote working and acknowledge the benefits, rather than see it as a last resort. “Lots of research suggests that there are huge gains to be had by allowing flexible working, mainly driving diverse and inclusive teams resulting in efficiency gains,” Gray adds. “Yet many leaders don’t want to embrace the change and take on what they see as ‘extra hassle’ for flexible workers.”

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