The Remote Work Paradox: Greater Flexibility, Less Opportunity
The shift to remote working created by the pandemic has been heralded as a positive development. For many it offers greater flexibility and better work life balance. However, it may inadvertently harm career advancement, especially for women. Diversity in the IT industry remains a persistent challenge with the statistics still painting a concerning picture.
According to the Office for National Statistics, women are slightly more likely than men to work remotely, but it is easier for office-based staff to be promoted over remote workers With businesses already struggling with gender equity, increased remote working risks further entrench of these problems. Proximity bias is real and, as business leaders admit1, physical absence can negatively impact perceptions of commitment, collaboration and leadership potential.
This is problematic for an industry striving to build inclusive cultures where all talent thrives. Women currently represent less than 30% of tech roles in the UK and fewer than 10% of leadership positions. The remote work revolution promised to remove barriers to participation, but instead has introduced new obstacles that disproportionately affect women.
Beyond career advancement, the shift to remote hiring can present barriers in building diverse teams from the start. Recruiting itself may require new approaches to avoid proximity bias and ensure qualified candidates aren’t overlooked. Interviews and assessments should focus on skills over impressions. There is also risk of replicating the existing workforce if efforts aren’t made to expand outreach. It is imperative that organisations prioritise diversity in recruiting, using technology to remove geographic barriers and unconscious biases. Fair processes that proactively seek out women and underrepresented groups are vital. Remote hiring done right can increase access to talent pools that better reflect society. But again, intent matters – without recognising these challenges and actively addressing them, remote work risks reproducing old imbalances.
Sue Johnson, who manages the Odgers Berndtson ED&I consulting practice, has created an Inclusive Recruitment Diagnostic Tool (IRD). The IRD assesses the maturity level of your recruitment and onboarding philosophy and processes, providing detailed recommendations and a strategic plan for you to be diverse and inclusive. An inclusive recruitment process is the starting point for any organisation’s diversity journey, and this tool can help identify gaps and opportunities from the outset. With the high costs of failed hires, improving recruiting with inclusion in mind brings material benefits beyond doing right.
Further solutions lie in countering proximity bias through intentional policies and manager training. Performance metrics should evolve to evaluate impact over face time. Leaders must model flexible work, while actively sponsoring remote employees. Hybrid policies can balance facetime and flexibility. Ultimately, however, mindset shifts are critical – evaluating contributions over perceptions, prioritising performance over presence.
The IT sector specifically must learn from remote work pitfalls to build a more equitable future. This begins with awareness of disparate impact, followed by purposeful interventions providing support to, women’s advancement. The post-pandemic workplace offers opportunities to reinvent broken systems, but only with thoughtfully architected solutions built with diversity in mind. Remote work need not harm women’s careers, but only if companies recognise this risk and act to create new organisational cultures centred on merit and inclusion.
Rob Fain is a Principal in the IT & Digital Leadership Practice for Berwick Partners, part of the Odgers Berndtson Group. For more information on The Inclusive Recruitment Diagnostic Tool or to discuss how we can help improve the diversity of your workforce please contact us.