One of the big optimization lessons learned as people quickly shifted to remote work was that if one person is remote, then everyone should connect in as if they were remote (whether they’re remote or not). It creates some really tough dynamics if a few people are hopping on Zoom or Google Meet remotely and the rest of the people are in person. There may be some technology companies trying to make this better, but I haven’t seen a good solution for it yet.
My guess is that most of you have experienced this. In some cases, the remote person isn’t an intimate part of the discussion and they just need to hear what’s being shared. If that’s the case, then it can work fine. However, if you want them to be an active contributor to the discussion, then having them remote while others are in person is problematic. The remote person will have a hard time interjecting their thoughts and sometimes even keeping up with the conversation. Thus, the advice that if one person is remote, everyone should hop on a virtual meeting so the playing field is equal.
This is going to become a major issue in most healthcare organizations as companies encourage their employees to return to work while allowing some of their employees to continue to remote work. The desire to have a meeting in person might be there, but you’ll want to consider how that’s going to impact those who can’t attend in person. Is it better to just go fully virtual so everyone can equally contribute?
What’s going to be even more challenging is that many people who need to continue joining remotely are those that are dealing with health issues or other high risk situations. If they’re forced to remote into meetings that are largely held in person, it’s easy to see how these people could be discriminated against even unintentionally by the organization. If you can’t participate fully in the meeting (which is hard to do if you’re remote and they’re in person), then will you not be seen as contributing to the organization in the same way as others? Will you miss out on promotions and raises? Will you have to work harder to prove that you’re an asset to the company and avoid being fired? No doubt these people making the choice to work remote have valid fears in this regard.
This also makes Epic’s decision to push employees to return to work a really bad choice. They’ve since allowed more flexibility in employees return to work with 4,000 of their 9,000 employees “voluntarily” returning to work already. However, the damage of their push to return to work is done.
You’ll notice that I put “voluntarily” return to work in quotes, because one has to question how voluntary it is when your leader has made such a strong push for employees to go back. How many of those employees went back because they felt like their career would be hurt if they didn’t even if they were afraid of doing so given health concerns? The tough part for Epic is that given how hard line they approached the return to work, they’re not going to be given the benefit of the doubt here. Instead, it’s going to be easy to assume that their stance pressured employees to come back to work before they felt safe to return.
Going back to the remote worker, that’s now a sticky situation for Epic as well. If they don’t take a hard line stance that they support the remote worker and will hold accountable anyone that tries to “punish” or not be inclusive of their employees that are not returning to work, then it’s going to be an easier case for an employee to make for why they were discriminated against by Epic for working remotely. You can already see the ambulance chasing lawyers salivating over this one.
While Epic has certainly made the legal case for remote discrimination in the workplace easier, this could be a challenge for any organization. That’s why it’s important about being deliberate in how you approach remote workers. Admittedly, I’m not a lawyer and I haven’t seen any precedent for this kind of discrimination case, but I think we’ll see some soon. Will it be hard to prove? Possibly, but that doesn’t mean lawyers won’t try and these cases are expensive regardless of if you win or lose.
Plus, being inclusive of remote workers is just the right thing to do. I don’t think most companies want to intentionally discriminate against employees who can’t make it to the office. Otherwise, why would they hire them in the first place. However, it’s not hard to see how this can unintentionally happen if a company isn’t intentional in their efforts to be inclusive.