If you’re in HR you’re likely fighting a number of fires right now. Tasked not only with rapidly implementing a company-wide working-from-home strategy to keep businesses up and running, many HR functions are also operationally responsible for mass layoffs as well as building out a crisis communication strategy. HR has never been more important and never been more stretched.

With large swathes of the global workforce moving to a work-from-home model, the next challenge will be managing a new workplace etiquette to ensure that the vector for workplace discrimination does not shift in parallel with the adoption of digital-first communication.

To give you some idea of the size of the shift, as of mid-March law firm Lewis Silkin LLP estimated that around 59% of large multinational enterprises have already put into place a plan to respond to pandemic diseases such as Coronavirus. Typical measures include social distancing and remote working arrangements and the majority (88%) are asking employees to work from home.

Around a similar timeframe, cloud security services firm Netskope, which routes corporate network traffic for hundreds of thousands of office workers in large multinationals said it estimated that the percentage of American white-collar desk workers logging in from home hit a high of 58% on March 19. This is up from an average of 27% over the last six months.

We’re all remote workers now, aren’t we?

Despite the availability of enabling technologies – high-speed broadband, cloud services, wireless connectivity, highly portable and powerful devices – remote working hasn’t been adopted quite as widely as people think. Depending on the research you read it’s estimated that only between 25% and 30% of companies worldwide allow large numbers of their workforce to log on remotely and only around 4% of companies worldwide have the capability for their entire workforce to work online.

The challenge has largely been cultural. Employers, for the most part, don’t trust their people to do their job if they can’t keep an eye on them. As a result, working-from-home has become a perk and caused considerable rifts between those who can and those who can’t.

A 2017 study by David Maxfield and Joseph Grenny for leadership training consultancy VitalSmarts found that just over half of people who work mostly remotely feel they don’t get treated equally by their colleagues. Suddenly it feels like everyone has been thrust into this experiment where businesses get an unexpected opportunity to test out the remote working model.

We can’t predict how this all pans out but there is some certainty that workplace culture will permanently change, especially for those that make a success of remote working (and those that survive).

Now everybody gets to see what it’s like. Is it rolling out of bed three minutes before your first video call and spending the day in a work shirt and pajama bottoms? Or is it discovering that everyone is now putting in two or three hours more work every day?

Don’t let communication breakdown

One guarantee is that collaboration tools and work chat platforms have taken over as primary communication. How will that affect the way we interact?

Some 30% of UK respondents to a survey by Totaljobs in 2018 said they had been victims of workplace discrimination on official corporate messaging platforms, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Google Chat. In the US, a 2019 survey by Monster.com revealed that 39% of respondents had received aggressive messages from colleagues on similar tools.

The same studies also show that 30% of workers in the UK (according to Totaljobs) and 34% in the US (according to Monster.com) who do experience cyberbullying suffer in silence because they are not confident they will be supported by their employer. It turns out that digital workers are disincentivized from reporting workplace misconduct in just the same way as employees that spend all their time in the physical presence of their colleagues.

Remote or not, employers are legally obliged to protect their workers physically and psychologically and there’s certainly an ethical imperative that employers should take more care during these uncertain times.

  • Remind your employees of your organization’s discrimination and harassment policies and ensure that these are adapted for a remote-first culture (i.e. how they apply to discrimination across messaging apps) and are easily available.
  • Encourage a Speak Up culture: stigmatizing issues (such as with race-related discrimination due to COVID-19) can be challenging for employees to report. Without effective reporting tools in place, many will suffer in silence.
  • Take reasonable steps to prevent discrimination and harassment: Typically, employers will only avoid liability in the event of a discrimination case if they can show they have taken ‘all reasonable steps’ to protect employees, such as implementing an effective and secure solution for reporting sensitive issues that take place in person or digitally.

Download Vault Magazine: The Isolation Issue for more insight on this cultural shift