Remote Work Has Been a Win for DEI—But There’s A Catch

By: on July 6, 2022

In a survey of over 1,200 U.S. employees*, we found that remote workers in marginalized groups—including women, employees 55 or older, LGBTQ workers, racial minorities, and those with a disability—are more likely to agree that their employer treats every employee fairly than hybrid or on-site workers in the same groups.

With HR departments eager to make their organizations more equitable and inclusive in 2022 (HR leaders have “making demonstrable progress on DEI” among their top five priorities this year, according to Gartner[1]), our survey findings suggest that remote work is the best format if companies want to reduce bias and discrimination in the workplace, and level the playing field for marginalized employees. Decision made, right?

Well, not so fast.

Our survey also revealed that women who work remotely are more likely to say they’re afraid to be their authentic selves at work than women who work in a hybrid or on-site setting, and that marginalized employees in hybrid and remote settings are more likely to lie about or omit a part of their identity out of fear of discrimination than those who work on-site.

For organizations that are considering going remote long-term, this is bad news. DEI in the workplace doesn’t truly thrive if employees are afraid to be who they really are. In this report, we’ll analyze our survey data to better understand why this is happening, and offer advice to HR leaders on how they can give their hybrid or remote employees the safety needed to be their authentic selves.

Key findings:

The good news: Remote workers say their employers are more fair

To understand how different work formats impact DEI, we collected survey responses from a handful of marginalized groups that are often impacted by negative bias and discrimination in the workplace. These include workers who experience sexism (women), ageism (employees 55 and older), homophobia (LGBTQ employees), racism (non-white workers), and ableism (people with disabilities or accessibility needs).

We then compared results in each group between those who work completely on-site (such as at a store or in an office), those who work completely remote, and those who do a mix of both in a hybrid format.

Using this method, we find that remote work is a clear leader in at least one facet of DEI: fairness. Across every marginalized group in our survey, remote workers are more likely to agree that their employer treats everyone fairly than hybrid or on-site workers.



Bar chart showing that, across groups of marginalized employees, remote workers are more likely to agree that their employer treats everyone fairly.

The gap in perceived equality between work formats is the largest for LGBTQ employees (16 percentage points) and the smallest for racial minorities (six percentage points). Still, remote work wins on fairness throughout. Why? We have a few theories:

  1. Managers measure remote worker performance more fairly: Unable to rely on biased “eye test” measures of productivity (like how late someone stays in the office), managers of remote teams have to use outcome-based metrics to measure performance. This allows for a more data-driven definition of what a “high performer” looks like, giving remote employees more certainty that the processes for measuring and rewarding performance are transparent and fair.
  2. Remote work reduces harassment and toxic work behaviors: In a separate survey of HR leaders** at organizations that transitioned from on-site work to remote work, 73% told us they received fewer complaints of toxic behavior from employees once they went remote. With employers able to monitor digital interactions more closely than in-person ones, workers are less likely to be affected by discriminatory behavior from others.
  3. Employees can better customize their workspace to their needs at home: An office is a “one-size-fits-all” solution that works better for some employees more than others. Working from home, on the other hand, allows for spaces that are more equitable and better able to meet individual needs. For example, if a new mother needs to pump breast milk, or a worker with a disability needs special accommodations to be productive, it’s easier and less stigmatized to do at home.

While remote work does the best in terms of fairness, according to our marginalized groups, hybrid work fares the worst. The reason why is twofold: Not only can employer decisions over who and how often someone has to come into the office be perceived as biased, but hybrid work also results in a visibility imbalance where those who come into the office more often are treated more favorably.

A 2019 study[2] confirms this bias: The more “face time” a worker had with their manager, the more likely they were to get better work assignments, stronger performance reviews, and promotions.

Bottom line

If you’re planning to keep remote work going when the pandemic is over, our results indicate your DEI efforts will be all the better for it. However, as we’ll discuss in the next section, there’s a downside to having employees who can hide behind a computer screen at home.

The bad news: Employees that work from home more often hide their authentic selves

Although we find that remote work succeeds in making work more fair, it fails in one important facet of DEI: Empowering employees to be their authentic selves.

71% of women in our survey who work remotely say that they are afraid to be their full authentic self at their job (compared to 64% of women who work on-site and 57% of women who work in a hybrid format).



Bar chart showing that women who work remotely are more likely to be afraid to be their authentic selves at work.

That’s not all. We also found that, across every marginalized group in our survey, workers were more likely to say they had lied about or omitted a part of their identity at their job out of fear of discrimination if they were hybrid or remote than if they worked on-site. In some groups, the percentage of hybrid workers who lied or omitted a part of their identity on multiple occasions doubled that of those who worked on-site.

Across all marginalized groups, hybrid and remote workers are more likely to lie about or omit a part of their identity at work

Have never lied / omitted Have lied / omitted once Have lied / omitted multiple times
Women
Remote (n=234) 36% 50% 14%
On-site (n=171) 54% 36% 10%
Hybrid (n=187) 41% 41% 19%
Ages 55+
Remote (n=167) 35% 52% 13%
On-site (n=46) 48% 39% 13%
Hybrid (n=128) 28% 41% 31%
LGBTQ
Remote (n=170) 36% 49% 15%
On-site (n=130) 43% 38% 19%
Hybrid (n=158) 30% 42% 28%
Racial minorities
Remote (n=210) 43% 47% 10%
On-site (n=115) 50% 40% 10%
Hybrid (n=224) 35% 42% 23%
Disabled
Remote (n=217) 29% 56% 15%
On-site (n=204) 39% 50% 12%
Hybrid (n=218) 25% 51% 23%
Source: Software Advice’s 2022 Remote Work DEI Survey
Q: How often have you lied about or omitted a part of your identity at your current job out of fear of discrimination?
Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

At face value, this data looks like a win for HR departments planning for a permanent return to the office—across all groups, employees were more likely to have never lied about or omitted a part of their identity if they worked on-site. But this data doesn’t tell the whole story. The reality is if on-site workers are more honest about their identities, it’s not always by choice.

Last year, a study by Future Forum found that only three percent of Black workers in the U.S. wanted to return to fully on-site work, compared to 21% of white workers. The reason? For many, a return to on-site work meant “a return to microaggressions and pressure to conform to white standards of professionalism[3].”

A separate study found that Asian-American and Latinx knowledge workers share this sentiment[4], and yet another study found that women also prefer to work from home more than men in part to avoid sexist behavior[5]. In other words, these workers can’t hide who they are on-site, but they face discriminatory behavior as a result.

This creates a double-edged sword for HR departments concerned about DEI when deciding where employees will work long-term. If your employees work at an office, they’ll be more authentic, but likely face more microaggressions and negative bias because of it. If they work from home, they’ll avoid some of this negative behavior, but as a result of hiding or downplaying their identity in virtual interactions.

Company leaders believe the benefits of remote work substantially outweigh the downsides—so much so that 82%[6] plan to let employees work remotely at least some of the time as they return to the workplace. That being said, HR leaders will need to take extra due diligence to ensure marginalized employees working from home feel seen and included for who they are.

3 best practices to promote authenticity in remote workers

It’s important to note that if workers don’t want to bring their full selves to work, that’s OK. It’s natural that many will want to keep some separation between who they are at work and who they are in private. But if your workers are masking their identities out of fear of discrimination or bias, that’s going to be a significant obstacle to improving DEI in the workplace.

With that in mind, here are three best practices to help coax remote workers to be their true selves.

1. Encourage ERGs

Employee resources groups, or ERGs, are thriving right now. In a 2021 report, Sequoia Consulting Group found that 40% of companies now have an employee resource group[7], representing a nine percent increase from the year before. For the uninitiated, an ERG is a voluntary, employee-led group with members that share a certain life experience or characteristic (such as being disabled). The goal of an ERG is to build organizational inclusion and identify common issues at work impacting members of the group.

By encouraging the formation of ERGs (again, these are employee-led, so this isn’t something HR or other departments should create outright), remote employees can meet more workers like them to understand if any discriminatory behavior or policies are widespread. They can then bring these issues to HR and other leaders to address.

The more issues that are surfaced by ERGs and subsequently fixed by leadership, the more trust remote workers will have that it’s safe to be themselves.

2. Set the right tone during onboarding

Your onboarding process is the blueprint for new hires on how to navigate company culture. If you spend the whole time talking only about how they can fit into your culture and your values, employees won’t be inclined to contribute their unique ideas and perspectives out of fear of rocking the boat.

On the other hand, if you take the time during onboarding to encourage new hires to share their goals, their fears, and how their individual strengths and ideas can benefit the organization, you’re letting them know that their authentic perspective is not only welcome at the company, but encouraged to allow the organization to thrive.

3. Have diversity in your remote leadership

The best DEI initiatives lead by example, and that’s no less true here. If workers see more diverse leaders and managers that are not only able to rise in the company ranks while still being remote, but also unafraid to be their authentic selves in virtual interactions, it’ll encourage others to do the same.


Methodology

*Software Advice’s 2022 Remote Work DEI Survey was conducted in April 2022 among 1,213 U.S. employees: 447 who work fully on-site (e.g., in an office, store, or other central location), 341 who work fully remote, and 425 who split their time between working on-site and remote (i.e., a hybrid model). LGBTQ employees are defined as any respondent that is not heterosexual. Racial minority employees are defined as any respondent that is not white/caucasian. Disabled employees are defined as any respondent with a disability or accessibility needs. The goal of this survey was to learn how hybrid and remote work impacts factors of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) among marginalized workers.

**Software Advice’s 2022 Toxic Culture Survey was conducted in January 2022 among 195 HR leaders at U.S. companies with at least six employees who had transitioned from mostly on-site work to mostly hybrid or remote work. An HR leader is defined as any HR employee with the role of HR manager or higher at their organization. The goal of this survey was to learn how the transition to hybrid and remote work impacted toxic employee behaviors.

Sources

  1. Top 5 priorities for HR leaders in 2022, Gartner
  2. Get noticed and die trying: signals, sacrifice, and the production of face time in distributed work, INFORMS
  3. Return to office? some women of color aren’t ready, The New York Times
  4. Inflexible return-to-office
    policies are hammering
    employee experience
    scores
    , future forum by Slack
  5. Women, people of color happier working from home, AXIOS
  6. Gartner survey reveals 82% of company leaders plan to allow employees to work remotely some of the time, Gartner
  7. Sequoia’s employee experience benchmarking report reveals evolution of employee benefits as workforce needs shift, Sequoia

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