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3 myths about remote work and how inclusive leaders can challenge them

August 23, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC
“If done without the proper planning, hybrid work can create new challenges,” writes Lauren Pasquarella Daley. “But if it’s intentionally built on a foundation of empathy and equity, it can lead to a more inclusive workplace.”
Alistair Berg—Digital Vision/Getty Images

As employees begin returning to office life, with many wanting to retain access to flexible and remote work opportunities, leaders are increasingly apprehensive about whether hybrid work is sustainable. Even with the rise of the Delta variant of COVID-19, which is delaying numerous companies’ back-to-the-office plans, many executives are reluctant to commit to flexible work for the long haul.

But the more I hear some of them say they want their workforce in the office, the more it’s clear how much they misunderstand hybrid work and underestimate its potential to transform workplaces for the better. Sure, if done without the proper planning, hybrid work can create new challenges. But if it’s intentionally built on a foundation of empathy and equity, it can lead to a more inclusive workplace. 

Yet myths about remote and flexible work persist. Here are the top three myths organization leaders need to see past to successfully manage a thriving, inclusive hybrid workplace:  

Myth No. 1: Collaboration and innovation are better done in person

Some CEOs worry that teamwork done remotely will be less fruitful than in-person, “spontaneous” interaction and collaboration.

In fact, there is no evidence that traditional office-centric practices, which often leave collaboration and innovation to chance, are better for teamwork and creativity. Spontaneous interactions may even worsen experiences of exclusion, since they rely on people connecting with colleagues based on proximity, comfort, and similarity. These three conditions limit inclusion based on processes like affinity bias and proximity bias, biases that tend to work against women and other historically marginalized groups.

In addition, recent Catalyst research has shown that most workers who had access to remote work report they were more productive, innovative, and felt more included. Strong collaboration and innovation are a result of a company’s intentional practices and culture, not schedule or location.

GitLab—which operated as an all-remote company long before the pandemic— is a case study. The organization recognized the need early on for purposefully building an effective remote workplace. It also pioneered the executive “head of remote” role to lead and shift workflows to remote-first

Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab, recommends that organizations intentionally lead their hybrid workplace transitions to ensure that their ability to collaborate and innovate are not dependent on work schedules or locations. “Innovation happens when you’re intentional, and these touch points can happen in physical spaces just as easily as virtual spaces,” he says. “The clearer goals, objectives, and work streams are, the easier it is for distributed teams to keep track of what others are working toward. That drives shared understanding and belonging.” 

Myth No. 2: Remote workers are less committed to their jobs

We’ve read about leaders who question the work ethic of employees who want to work remotely. 

But a recent study from Catalyst found that employees are more engaged and committed to their organizations when they have access to remote work options. Not only that, but workers with those options were less likely to report they intend to leave their jobs in the next year. 

When people can work in ways that best support their life and work needs, it often boosts productivity and reduces turnover. Flexible and remote work policies are important for attracting and retaining talent now, and into the future of work. This may be especially true for women with childcare responsibilities, as our study showed they are 32% less likely to intend to leave their jobs if they have remote options. Flexibility and remote work can help address the disproportionate impact of the “shecession,” giving women choices for managing the blurred lines of life and work. 

But this is not just a women’s issue. Everyone can benefit from normalizing this way of working while building equitable access to career advancement opportunities. Ensuring everyone can grow and advance in their careers—regardless of flexible schedules or locations—is a key aspect of inclusive hybrid workplaces. 

Myth No. 3: Remote work hurts company culture

Organizations often reinforce their cultures through in-office activities designed to highlight their values: personal interactions, professional networks, and team building. And some CEOs aren’t convinced their organizational cultures can be sustained remotely.

But in fact, some office-centric cultures may be excluding employees—most notably women and, in particular, women of color—who face pressure to conform and do not have the same access to powerful advocates. This lack of access to informal networks—especially networks that can provide important information about “unwritten rules”—is one of the primary barriers to the career advancement of women. 

As with the GitLab example, companies developing remote or hybrid work plans should intentionally build practices to overcome this concern by operating with “remote-first behaviors” that level the playing field for employees from historically marginalized groups. This is what builds a strong, inclusive hybrid culture. 

The myths are just that. There are far more benefits to flexible and remote work. It is different, but it also boosts productivity, business continuity, sustainability, and innovation. And worker expectations have shifted through the pandemic. Leaders can fight this shift—or they can be open to reframing hybrid work as an opportunity to position their company for success now and into the future. 

Lauren Pasquarella Daley is senior director of Women and the Future of Work at Catalyst.

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