The future of work: Will remote work help or hinder the pursuit of equality?

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About the project

The widespread shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way many people perceive and experience work—and has brought about important questions on the future of work. Simultaneously, the pandemic has had significant economic and health impacts on marginalized groups. How have marginalized workers specifically been affected by the shift to working from home? And what types of work design will best facilitate equity, well-being and opportunity for workers moving forward?

This project investigates how the rapid transition to remote work may affect inequalities, applying an intersectional lens to understand how different groups are experiencing this transformation in labour. We provide readers with a synthesis of research, mainly from the last seven years, outlining key scholarly debates and issues and exploring implications for organizational and public policy as well as for future research. Our specific focus in our analysis of this rapidly evolving field of inquiry is on the effects of remote work on individual well-being, economic and career outcomes and its potential impacts on the climate crisis.

We find that remote work models have improved many workers’ lives, such as by eliminating commutes and allowing workers to feel more at ease, but it has also been associated with career penalties, work-family conflict, social isolation and other mental health challenges—particularly for those who already experience inequity. Many of these disadvantages come about not because of anything inherent about remote work, but because of bias, stereotypes and social norms surrounding paid and unpaid work.

Key findings

  • Access to remote work is not equal. The ability to telecommute disproportionately belongs to higher-income, white-collar workers who are predominantly white and male. Those who have poor access to housing and high-speed internet or who experience unsafe situations such as domestic violence cannot readily work remotely.
  • Remote work has mixed effects on well-being for all workers. It can reduce stress and exposure to microaggressions, increase motivation and feelings of ease and comfort and allow for more time spent with family. However, it may also contribute to increased exhaustion, feelings of loneliness and isolation and other mental health challenges.
  • Remote work can increase work-family conflict without other supports in place to prevent it. Primary caregivers, who tend to be women, may particularly experience an erosion of boundaries between work and care responsibilities while working from home, leading to an unsustainable amount of paid and unpaid work. This comes about partly because of gender norms and stereotypes that result in women taking on disproportionate domestic and care work when compared to men.
  • Remote work can increase economic opportunity, such as by allowing workers with other responsibilities such as caregiving to remain in the workforce and by allowing workers to move to less expensive regions. However, although many workers of different social identities use flexible work arrangements, women and racialized people tend to experience disproportionate stigma and bias for using them, resulting in significant career penalties such as wage reductions and fewer promotions.
  • The impact of remote work on the environment and climate crisis is equivocal. Although an increase in remote work has the direct effect of reducing carbon emissions due to reduced commuting, increased energy use in homes, increased car use due to workers moving away from urban locales and other indirect impacts may negate reduced emissions.

Policy implications

  • Remote work policies must be matched by public and organizational policies that address gendered structures that cause remote work to increase work-life conflict for caregiving women. These may include affordable child care, adequate paid family leave and a range of options for flexible work.
  • Both workers and organizations benefit from policies that remove the stigma of remote work because it increases worker motivation and job performance. Organizations can offer these options on a regular basis and ensure that they are accessible and appealing to everyone.
  • Work design can be transformed to facilitate different forms of work. Some forms of work practices (i.e., more traditionally bureaucratic arrangements) facilitate the use of remote work more than others. Flexible work stigma can also be reduced by ensuring information is accessible online and by creating team-building opportunities for remote-working employees.
  • Organizations can decrease work-family conflict and improve well-being by ensuring reliable and consistent communication, establishing that workers know they do not have to work longer hours at home and eliminating employee monitoring.
  • Remote work will not have a major impact on the climate crisis unless accompanied by other policy measures, such as ensuring widespread availability of quality public transportation and affordable housing in urban areas.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Lead Investigator Sarah Kaplan, director, Institute for Gender and the Economy, and distinguished professor, Gender and the Economy, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto:

Kim de Laat, assistant professor, Organization and Human Behaviour, Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business, University of Waterloo:

Carmina Ravanera, senior research associate, Institute for Gender and the Economy, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, Employment and Social Development Canada or the Government of Canada.

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