In a recent Lioness article, female entrepreneurs shared why they love remote and hybrid work. Increased flexibility, more family time and space for creativity were just a few of the perks. Flexibility was a saving grace for so many people during the pandemic. However, when some employees work from home while others are in the office, remote workers might be at a disadvantage.
When it comes to promotions and visibility, online employees are often “out of sight, out of mind.” Because women and minorities are much more likely to choose to work remotely, these groups are disproportionately impacted. When people get to choose where they work, men tend to go into the office and get ahead while women and minorities tend to stay home and fall behind. This could lead to a serious lack of diversity in leadership going forward.
The “Zoom Ceiling”
Industrial-organizational psychologist Elora Voyles coined the term “Zoom Ceiling” to describe the hidden costs of hybrid work. “Fixed hybrid” environments are where some employees work completely in person and some never set foot in the office. In these settings, people overlook remote workers. Visibility plays a huge role in who gets promotions and opportunities. Leaders often choose the people they see the most. A Stanford Graduate School of Business School study found that although remote workers were 13 percent more productive, the promotion rate was roughly half compared to those in the office.
Leaders aren’t necessarily favoring in-person workers on purpose-it’s human nature. Sometimes known as availability or recency bias, we naturally prioritize information that we have seen most recently. The implication for remote workers is that they have to work twice as hard for their superiors to notice them. As a result, it’s harder for them to advance in their careers.
The double disadvantage
As more companies are giving people hybrid options, it’s women and minorities who choose to stay home. Women often carry additional household and family responsibilities that remote work accommodates. Women are 50 percent more likely to choose to work from home compared to men. In addition, complex workplace dynamics make remote work appealing to minorities. Studies show that Black, Asian-American and Latinx knowledge workers prefer remote work at much higher rates compared to their white peers. Particularly in white or male-dominated industries, virtual work gives minority workers respite. They can avoid workplace racism, sexism or feeling like an outsider at the office.
This means that in addition to barriers that already hold these groups back, they now face the additional layer of remote “invisibility.” Historically, women and minorities struggle to feel heard and respected in office settings. Now, the virtual barrier compounds these types of issues. A Catalyst survey of more than 1,000 U.S. working adults found that 45 percent of women business leaders report difficulties speaking up in virtual meetings. Finding mentors and advocates within the company is also harder from a remote position.
Basically, remote work makes advocating for yourself, building relationships and earning a promotion harder. And since women and minorities already face these challenges in the office, hybrid work environments can compound them.
What leaders can do to improve hybrid work
Making sure remote employees don’t have to work twice as hard to get support and recognition makes your company more inclusive to diverse talent that might really need the flexibility of remote options. If you manage a hybrid team, there are strategies you can use to make the workplace more equitable.
Formalize hybrid and remote work policies
Make clear expectations for how remote workers will receive feedback. Explicitly state who they contact when they need support and resources and how their progress will be assessed.
Standardize performance evaluations
In order to address the Zoom Ceiling issue, as a leader, you have to assess employee performance based truly on the quality of work, not how charismatic they are in the office or how much face time they get. This means having clear metrics for success and objectives that can be met virtually. Succeeding in a remote role might look very different from succeeding in an in-person role. When it comes time to assess and promote, remember that remote success is not less deserving of recognition just because you don’t see the behind-the-scenes every day.
Schedule regular one-on-one meetings
Frequent “face-to-face” interaction is especially important to remote workers who face that lack of visibility. The burden of working to be noticed shouldn’t completely fall on their shoulders. Schedule regular times to check in on virtual workers.
Equalize group meetings
If a meeting is virtual, make it all virtual. People who are physically in the room tend to dominate hybrid meetings. Equalize the playing field by having everyone join online.
Recognizing that this is a nuanced issue is important. Being aware of the complex barriers women and minorities face and how hybridity affects them uniquely is crucial to being an effective leader and supportive coworker. Taking action is also crucial. Putting these strategies in place and making sure your team is aware of these issues is a leader’s responsibility. With unprecedented levels of hybrid work since the pandemic, we are all navigating new workplace norms together.