Faces of HR

Will Remote Work Level the Playing Field for Employees?

As the world moves to remote, many have grown concerned about how differently that will affect different groups of people. Today’s guest wonders if, with a little hard work, it might be possible for the world of remote work to actually level the playing field, overturning previously existing inequities.

Meet Teresa Martinez, Director of Human Resources at Altia.

How did you get into HR?

I worked after high school in two very unrelated fields and then made a late decision to return to school for my degree in psychology, assuming an eventual career as a child and adolescent counselor. When I graduated, I knew I was behind in my computer skills. I registered with a temp agency that offered computer training along with its other placement services and things like that.

After going through the interview and intake process with the agency, I went back home and received a phone call asking me to come back to the office. The owner of the agency happened to be in town at that particular office that day and wanted to meet me. So I met with him, and he actually ended up hiring me directly to work for the agency. There, I did account management and recruiting and assisted the employees who came in looking for work. It just kind of stuck. And over 20 years later, here I am still doing that, so I was blessed to find it.

Some organizations are going through entire redesigns of their offices to accommodate a return to the physical workplace. It seems to me that if you have to go through all the trouble to twist your office into something people could come back to, you really better have a good reason for them to come back in. Right?

Absolutely.

That’s a lot of costs and a lot of anxiety and a lot of concern. It’s concerning for me just to go into a store for a few minutes with a mask on. If I were sitting in an office, I don’t really care how it’s designed, no matter if I’m 20 feet away from everybody; we’re breathing the same air. I don’t want to wear a mask all day either. Some people don’t have a choice, but a lot of places do have a choice. Being in a place where I know other people might get sick doesn’t seem like a thing I would ever really be comfortable with. I get concerned at how many companies are really trying to bring people back to the office on this sort of misguided adventure to the past.

It is. And that’s actually what we found. We surveyed our folks, and I’ve been reaching out and interacting with them. There were a lot of concerns shared about how we know if it’s really safe. You can do everything, but again, we have an office space in another building. What are they doing? The greater building, the ventilation—those types of things are all concerns.

Then we have to ask what we are going to do internally. It was really split down the middle; after COVID and after we have the vaccines and everything, half want to go back to work, and half don’t. And even of that split, many people are really hoping for a hybrid situation going forward. They miss the interaction; of course, you miss the people you work with, and there are certainly things to be gained by those casual interactions throughout the day, but there are also concerns. There are concerns for your family. There are also difficulties with child care and a lack of confidence in child care and those types of things. So, yeah, it was a tough call, and that’s why we really made the call to stay remote at this point.

There’s one thing about it in particular that I wanted to get your thoughts on, which is that, as companies start moving people back, a lot of them are going to give people the choice to move back instead of forcing them to because they’ve done studies, and they’ve learned that that’s not going to work out.

But one of the things that creates is a disparity among employees who can come back and employees who really can’t. Unfortunately, the way things are, the people who can’t tend to be of a certain socioeconomic class, disproportionately affecting single parents, people of color in particular, and especially single mothers of color. These tend to be the groups that, given the choice, can’t and won’t go back to their physical workplaces. That comes with lost opportunities for growth for them. One of the things I’ve been curious about is how organizations are, as you’re talking about the move back to work, even mitigating that? How would you make sure that the people who can’t come back still get the same opportunities that people who are in the office, who are around leadership, and who are in person are getting to voice their ideas?

I think it starts with acknowledging just what you said. We have to recognize that it will be different for different people. From a leadership perspective, we have to make sure the reasons we’re even calling anyone back to the office are valid and viable and that there is a true need to be there and that we do still continue a lot of the cultural actions we put in place through COVID with communication and engagement and make sure managers are reaching out to all of their employees and make sure senior managers are doing skip-level meetings down to the employees below them. Toward that effort, we’re asking how everybody’s being affected through this period. I think we just need to continue because that’s always the fear; are we going to go back to the office and it’s going to be the same old thing as it used to be?

We actually have a group of employees out of state who do work remotely. Then, we have a larger, local group here at corporate who works on-site. When we went to all remote work, some of the feedback we collected was, “Well, now it’s an even playing field because now, you guys who were there in the office are remote. We have just as much face time and just as much time with leadership and management and interaction as you all did.” So, that’s a very key point.

There are also situations in which people might have familial hardships or challenges they need to overcome that might keep them from coming back. I think the more we talk about those things, the more we make sure we’re making good decisions and the more we’re asking how people are being affected and what we can do to make sure they stay engaged. I think that’s important. I think we just have to call it for what it is and recognize it and remind people and keep talking about it.

I don’t know if you remember a couple of years ago this video that went viral; this BBC newscaster was doing his report from his house. Then, his little toddler comes marching in followed by a younger child in a walker and finally the wife scooping them back up and ushering them out. That made world news; that was huge. And, because of how uncool it was back then, this guy looked devastated. Even if everyone knows your kid is home while you are working from home, back then, it was considered taboo, especially if that kid were to interrupt a meeting and, in this case, a live broadcast. If that happened, at the very least, you were probably going to have to talk to somebody about it and workplace policies afterward.

That is no longer the case. The reality of the situation has changed, and everyone has had to change right along with it. The realities of life are messy and complicated. They don’t fit into a 9-to-5 series of lines, and trying to force everything in there I think was causing a lot of destruction. And now, the lines have been relaxed. If you multiply even that little bit of relief by all of the people who are lucky enough to experience that, that’s a massive effect across the workforce of America.

Absolutely. Things have significantly changed. I know at our company, Altia, our CEO has talked openly about how it’s not just the employee now; it’s the whole family. It’s not that it wasn’t the family before, but now, you’re certainly more up close and personal with everyone. Everyone is working in very unique circumstances. Everybody has kids of different ages or lots of pets at home, or people have their parents they’re taking care of or whatever the situation might be. And there is interruption, and there are times we’re able to focus more than others. And at least with our company, we are at an advantage because we can kind of flex and flow our day and hours. If I need to step away for a couple hours, I can do that. If I want to work late at night because the house is quiet, I can do that.

Certainly, we still have to try to align some meetings and get together when we need to and be available and keep an eye on things, but it’s recognizing that we all have different patterns. That was one of the most positive comments that came back: “I can work when I’m in a highly productive, focused state, which might be different from seven o’clock in the morning, like it is for Cheryl,” or something like that. It’s recognizing that our work patterns, our sleep patterns, and everything are kind of in a state of flux right now, and that’s OK.

If you listened to many employers and business leaders just a year ago, that was impossible and too disruptive, and nothing would get done. Clearly, they were wrong. While there are always going to be a few lazy employees, most people really want to put their hard work in, and they will regardless of the challenges you put in front of them. It’s been pretty inspiring, really.

It has been. And I mean, those lazy, unproductive people are going to be lazy and unproductive in the office, too, and no one has the time to watch them. None of this has hurt productivity. Our company has been highly productive. It’s been excellent to watch. We haven’t missed a step. My husband’s company was one of those where you have to be there these hours and at this time; it’s very, very strict, and they’re working a hybrid situation right now, and they’re busier than ever. They have more business than ever. They’re doing better than ever. That’s really excellent to see because again, it feeds back into that whole thing. And like we talked about earlier, it’s going to even the playing fields in a lot of different ways with that flexibility because the differences won’t matter as much—those cultural differences, those familial differences, and those types of things.

If we can just recognize that if we feed into this, if we allow continued flexibility, if we are innovative and we open the doors and really try to see what works and what doesn’t and are willing to take risks and chances and do things a little differently, we’re going to learn so much. I think we’re going to get so far because as now most companies work global, the world is a very small place. I think it’ll let us work in many unique ways we weren’t before. Think of when people say, “I have to have an off-hours meeting.” Well, what will that mean in a year or 2? Or what does that mean now? Because what are on hours and off hours? It’s not 9 to 5 anymore, so I think the field’s wide open. I think it really is an advantage for us all.

Before all of this, and let me know if this is how it was at your organization, companies that offered remote positions always tried to hire locally first and then have the remote position as sort of a backup—a last resort, if you will. Are you guys changing your hiring strategies?

We are still hiring, and I was actually hired during COVID myself, so I started remotely, which has been interesting. I’m helping set up the office and do those kinds of things even though I haven’t actually been working there. But I’ve gone in a couple of times, and it’s a beautiful office. Remote hiring has really opened up leadership’s mind on where we need to be.

Another interesting thing is that it avails you to a lot more people, and some of the larger companies—the Amazons, the Facebooks, and the other companies that are now saying they’re going to be remote—are hiring all over. We now might have local competition that we wouldn’t have had before, as well. The positives definitely outweigh the negatives, but it’s a very interesting turn of events.

The world is our oyster, apparently. Were there any challenges that came up that you totally didn’t expect or ongoing new challenges that are arising now that you didn’t foresee?

For one thing, a lot of companies gave up their intern program because of COVID. But we didn’t because we are committed to our interns. As a result, we’ve had to get really creative about onboarding and engaging our interns.

That’s a good point. And we were contacted by a lot more students very late in the game because they lost the internships they had. Even here locally, with the Air Force Academy, they don’t usually do external internships. They work on-site at the Academy. They were reaching out, saying that now, they need an external work opportunity. We were one of the only companies that were still doing it here. So, that was a great thing. It’s just like the rest of the onboarding we’re doing. Just make a conscious effort to engage them.

We did meet down real briefly at the office—a few of us masked and social distanced and all of that. Of course, it was voluntary, but beyond that, the team really pulled together, as have the interns themselves. We were blessed to have a returning intern who had been here before. She really stepped up to kind of take the lead. So did the team and our mentors and coaches we have for our interns; they really made sure the interns stayed engaged because that’s a tough thing. Not only are you new to a company, but you’re also new to the workforce, and you’re new to putting your skills to work.

We had a fabulous experience there. They ended up doing very, very well. We actually have our interns working directly on our products. We’re a software company, so they were able to test development and test software that is actually being used, which was very exciting to them. We then had them do virtual presentations at the end, as we would. That was really exciting. We had the attitude of “You know what, we’re going to forge ahead. We owe it to these kids to do it.” That’s why we have these programs in place.

Interns do represent a pretty significant portion of the work that’s accomplished in this country. And it’s true that very few people are talking about them right now. It’s good to see somebody going forward with that. There’s really no reason they can’t be remote either, largely unless it’s skilled labor or trade work or something like that.

We even had an intern who was working out of a mobile home on the road for a while. It was fun for that person. That’s the other thing. We always say “our home office”; well, maybe your home office is your RV, or maybe your home office is the Airbnb or a place you want to visit this year or whatever. And that’s exciting. That keeps people at peace and with joy and having fun, which certainly feeds back into the company and certainly feeds back into their work.

I’m laughing because it’s just so different from a very recent interview. When the company sent everyone home, I guess it had some additional stipulation stating they actually had to work from their home. I’ve never heard of anything like this before because what does it matter, right? It never would have occurred to me to apply further restrictions. This company had sold it like it was a benefit—for 1 of the 6 months when everyone was home, it said, “Well, you can work from anywhere,” which really gave me pause. It doesn’t seem like you guys have that concern.

No, we really don’t. Obviously, for the long term, if you were to leave the state and be in another state for a length of time or take up residence in a different place, there are those kinds of legal ramifications and taxation situations, but being that we’re talking more short term and moving around, I think it makes so much sense. And, as you alluded to earlier, not everybody’s home is the most conducive for work, so remote can mean a lot of things.

If you can get more work done sitting at Starbucks with your computer because you have too many interruptions at home, then absolutely, go do it where you can be productive. We want our employees engaged. We want everybody to be productive. We want them to be comfortable and experiencing as little stress as possible because this whole situation is obviously stressful, and that’s going to mean different things to a lot of different people.

So as long as you’re in touch with your team and your managers, then it’s great. I mean, one of our leaders was about to become a grandfather, and he left the state for a little bit to go down and help out his daughter and the family and is going to get to see his granddaughter come into a different state than where he actually lives. That was certainly celebrated and supported. Now that we have technology, those advances made this transition happen quickly and helped keep engagement up. The sky’s the limit. I think it’s fantastic. I think we need to really support our folks and really celebrate the differences and the opportunities we have in this unique situation.