Is Remote Working Better in Tech? Digging into Project Include’s Report on Remote Work During COVID

July 7, 2021

For once, statistics may help more people be seen. Read the full report or executive summary.

Recently, Project Include reported on how the wholesale shift to remote work during COVID-19 has affected tech workers. Their data shows an overall increase in “three types of problems: harassment and hostility, harmful work expectations, and anxiety.” But the distribution of harm varied significantly based on respondents’ disability, sexual identity, sexual orientation, perceived gender, race, and class:

Much research has been done on the impact of Covid-19 on the workforce; we distinguish ours with our focus on marginalized groups over averages that might overlook the worst experiences…our intersectional approach [shows] different demographics and people from marginalized groups are facing kinds of harms and experiences during Covid-19 than dominant and more privileged groups.—Project Include 2021 Report

Our CEO, Leigh Honeywell, sat down with Project Include CEO Ellen Pao to reflect on what the research means for the future of working in tech. (Their conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

The struggle is (still) real

Leigh: How did you land on anxiety as a major focus for the research? I know I personally have felt emotionally brittle, whether it’s coming from inside the workplace or out.

Ellen: We wanted to focus on how people are managing, how they’re feeling, and we saw anxiety went up for 85% of people: CEOs, executives, workers. People across the board are under tremendous expectations that are unsustainable.

Leigh: Did communication get any better over time, or are people just more traumatized and it’s getting worse?

Ellen: When we finished our survey collection in January, companies were still not giving employees any guidance. Nothing like: “We’re in a new work world, and here are our expectations for online behavior. If you’re a manager, don’t bombard your employees with check-ins all day long.” Our stats included people whose managers were checking in on them every day, and then 1% of people had managers checking on them 5 or more times a day.

Unfortunately, if you were a bad manager, you’re a worse manager under the pandemic.

Leigh: I struggled with expectation setting and defining communication norms early on, and we tried a bunch of different tools like Tandem and Fellow that really improved things. Leadership teams need to focus on what people actually need to be able to do their best work.

Ellen: We have to rethink all the processes, rethink how we communicate. Let’s do less one-on-one communication, because we’ve seen that’s really toxic. It’s how people harass and are hostile online.

Covid-19 is a reckoning as it exacerbates and amplifies the problems with systemic inequities and harassment, mental health, and poor management that have long-existed in tech.—Project Include 2021 Report

Ellen: At first, our numbers seemed to show harassment levels hadn’t changed that much. But then we saw certain groups of people were experiencing much more harassment and hostility at levels that were quite dramatic. Our data equity approach (driven by Yang Hong, our data scientist) dis-aggregated and re-aggregated the data in thoughtful ways that make sense and don’t erase people’s identities, yet still preserve privacy.

Delete meetings!

Leigh: My understanding is that American ADA case law has established that working remotely is a reasonable accommodation for a wide variety of jobs. Now we have all of these companies that have made it very clear they can allow remote work. Is the post-pandemic world going to be good for people with disabilities?

Ellen: I do worry that somehow because of ableism, disabled people will still be excluded from some of those benefits. Changes to create hybrid workplaces or allow the remote option should be helpful, but it’s not going to solve the problem of systemic bias.

Leigh: I remember one counselor you talked to had clients who are autistic, and they would have had to disclose their disability to get basic accommodations, like not having to turn their webcam on.

Ellen: And some companies are using surveillance technology—they’re recording the video or your keyboard clicks, which increases anxiety and doesn’t measure the right things.

Leigh: How do we actually have fewer meetings?

Ellen: There’s a big thing (DuckDuckGo Engineering Director) Cate Huston says: “Delete boring meetings,” like status updates. Make it less of a status symbol to be at certain meetings, minimize meetings by having a good productivity tool and making it transparent. Put all the information into the tool, and do just as much asynchronously by writing.

Change the set point

Leigh: The pandemic has shown that we can change how we do things very quickly. How do we do that in a positive instead of reactive way?

Ellen: It’s about setting expectations for people, so they can trust each other. Our research showed a lot of people don’t trust HR. And if you want to have a healthy company, you need to teach people that they can report, and good things will come out of it. People don’t report because they’re trying to take your company apart, they report because they care about the company and want it to be better.

I think most people are not looking to buck the system, and if you set out clear roles and enforce the boundaries, they will follow.

Leigh: Same. I am inherently optimistic that if you give people good guidance about how to be kind to each other, they will do those things. If you’ve been trying to create a respectful, inclusive, remote space, let’s carry this work forward to the in-person workspace—start from that new set point.

It’s like the San Francisco earthquake in 1989: The bridge was closed and BART ridership went up by a bazillion percent. But even after the bridge finally reopened, BART ridership stayed up 15% long term—the set point had changed. If we can use coming back to the office to change the set point around disability, around not being racist at work, around not harassing your colleagues, that’d be amazing.

The San Francisco Bay Bridge, illuminated at night
Image by Robert diam from Pixabay

Ellen: This is an opportunity to rebuild things in a better way, because people are looking for workspaces that are inclusive and equitable. They’ve lived through the protests and they’ve tried to educate themselves. They want to be more supportive of their colleagues or their own community, so they’re speaking up and pushing for more respect, more equity. They hear their leaders say they care about certain issues, and they want to see their companies live up to these statements.

And then you can reach a customer base or a user base that is much broader than before. You can prevent all sorts of problems because you have different perspectives and people who can predict what’s going to happen within certain communities that you might not otherwise be in connection with. So I think it’s a huge opportunity. I hope more people think of it that way, too.

Project Include uses data and advocacy to accelerate diversity and inclusion solutions in the tech industry. Their mission: Give everyone a fair chance to succeed in tech. Read the full Project Include report here.