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Dealing with perceived inequities between employees (and clinicians) who can and can’t work remotely

March 30, 2021 | By Jeramy Gordon

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Like many industries, the healthcare industry is finding that more work can be accomplished remotely than was previously believed to be possible. Even some clinicians are now able to work remotely with patients. And, of course, many ancillary staff (e.g., billing, marketing, HR, etc.) are now working remotely.

But the hybrid model can lead to perceived inequities between employees who can — and can not — work remotely.

The Haves — and The Have Nots

“When some employees are allowed to work remotely, and others are not, perceived inequities develop,” said Rod Brace, Ph.D., a CLO and executive coach with Relia Healthcare Advisors. “Those employees who must continue to commute, fill office time, and be under the visual scrutiny of senior leaders, perceive they are discriminated against when working from home is viewed as a perk.”

Interestingly, though, the pendulum can swing both ways with both camps having a tendency (as we humans often do) to believe others somehow have a better situation than we do.

Back in 2017, Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield wrote an article for Harvard Business Review based on a study of 1153 employees, more than half working from home at least some of the time. They found that remote employees were more likely to feel “left out” by their colleagues on site. “Specifically, they worry that coworkers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to projects without telling them in advance, lobby against them, and don’t fight for their priorities.”

While remote workers may enjoy added freedom and flexibility, they faced challenges in being able to work effectively with and through others, according to Grenny and Maxfield.

Fast forward to 2021 and the situation hasn’t changed much. But the situation has become far more complicated. While remote workers may still feel out of the loop, onsite workers these days may have concerns over health risks, as a SHRM article points out.

As companies weigh whether, and when, to bring employees physically back to the workplace they need to be thinking about internal and external equity related to the type of work being done, access to managers and senior leaders, and—in 2021—employee safety.

Considering the Bigger Picture

There are other, larger societal, issues that may also be at play here and worth serious consideration. BBC reports on research done by the University of Chicago in mid-March 2020 which discovered that “the jobs best suited to going remote were well-paid, white-collar occupations in big cities, while those in industries like agriculture and hospitality were much harder to switch.” Many healthcare occupations could also fall into this category. Their key takeaway is that “the economic impact of the pandemic could be highly unequal, severely impacting some industries and regions while leaving others relatively unscathed.

As with any business policy consideration, equity and consistency in the application of remote work policies are critical to maintaining a high level of employee understanding and acceptance of how they, personally, are impacted by these rules.

The pandemic has forced many organizations and managers to realize that jobs they would formerly have said could “never” be conducted at home, really can. Moving forward, maintaining a reasoned, and reasonable, approach to these decisions will be critical.

Let Reason Prevail

“There is an intersection between equality and effectiveness that leaders must strive to address,” Brace says. “If a job can be performed remotely and the workplace is safe, then some latitude in choosing one’s place of work should be granted to allow autonomy.” This doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, he notes. “For example, employees can be required to work in the office for two days and are free to work the remaining days at home or in the office,” he says.

Based on his experience in the healthcare industry, Brace says he believes that “there is a general understanding among clinicians that their job cannot be performed remotely, and they do not take issue with others having the ability to work from home.”

It’s really when reason takes a back seat to what may be perceived as ill-advised—or worse, inequitable—decisions that employee engagement, satisfaction, and loyalty may be negatively impacted.

Other Considerations

There may also be unintended impacts related to working from home that have the potential to negatively impact employees, Brace notes. For instance, he says: “Proximity to senior leaders has always been a coveted position to hold,” he says. “Remote working opportunities have created some friction or perceived inequities among employees based on their ability to remain close to their supervisor.”

These feelings generally stem from the lack of natural social connections or “in the hallway” information discussions that take place in in-person environments, Brace says. “When some employees are present with the senior executives and others are not, those employees working from home perceive their colleagues may have an advantage due to their in-person proximity. In some cases, this has been perceived to be a threat to overall career success.”

The prescription for this, and other, perceived inequities? Effective, and ongoing, communications.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Healthcare organizations—in fact, all organizations—need to ensure that they are clearly communicating to employees about who can work from home-based both on position and personal attributes.

While making decisions solely on the position and whether it requires an on-site presence may be the “cleanest” and least controversial approach, it’s fair to also have guidelines in place specifying the personal characteristics that will, or may not, make employees eligible for remote work. For instance, employees whose performance is declining and who may be on some form of improvement plan may legitimately be excluded from opportunities to work from home. In addition, some employees simply may not want to work from home for various reasons.

Developing, clearly communicating, and consistently applying criteria related to job tasks and employee traits and competencies can help minimize concerns over inequity.

It’s also fair for employers to pilot work-from-home options as they learn from experience and weigh the pros and cons for the organization, staff, patients, and others. Transparency as the viability of at-home work is being considered is important to help manage expectations and explain the why behind what may otherwise be unpopular decisions.

Finally, ensure opportunities for plenty of two-way interaction—both on-site as well as off-site employees. Gathering and sharing feedback about what’s working, and what may not be, can help to keep all informed and engaged in an ongoing process of identifying and removing perceived inequities.

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