The Zoom Ceiling is the New Glass Ceiling

Written by: Dr. Elora Voyles

The Invisible Barrier Holding Remote Workers Back

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the landscape of work has vastly changed in an astonishingly short period of time. Many employees and organizational leaders scrambled to focus on the immediate process of adjusting to remote work. However, as an IO psychologist, I began to consider the long-term effects of remote work. 

We all know that working remotely offers a short commute from bed to the computer as well as flexibility. Remote work also opens up opportunities to move across the country and balance work with family. For example, I have a colleague who is moving to New Mexico to reside an equal distance from her aging parents and her partner’s aging parents. She would not have been able to make that move without the introduction of remote work at our organization. Or even for myself, I started as a People Scientist during the pandemic and moved from the Midwest to California to work at a company headquartered in Washington state. 

For all the seemingly positive aspects of remote work, we’re also starting to understand the tradeoffs. One of the costs can be slower career progression for remote workers. The old saying, “out of sight, out of mind” certainly applies to remote workers, but given the scale of how many people are working in a hybrid or fully remote capacity, this is becoming a more pressing issue. 

The glass ceiling is a well known phenomenon that refers to the invisible barrier blocking women’s ascension to higher levels of leadership within organizations. The Zoom Ceiling is a new phenomenon where remote workers are more likely to be passed over for promotions compared to their in-person colleagues

Who is Impacted by the Zoom Ceiling?

Everyone. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a generation of newly remote workers are experiencing the benefits as well as the unseen costs of remote work. In addition, supervisors, HR, business leaders, and organizations are also navigating remote work policies while unknowingly reinforcing the Zoom Ceiling. 

Even if you aren’t currently working remotely, chances are you will either consider remote work in the near future or be part of an organization that employs remote workers. For example, you may be offered a job or promotion that comes with remote work options. For some workers, this added flexibility may become a necessity to manage care for children or aging parents. However, remote work benefits may come with costs. Before choosing your work arrangement, it is important to be informed about the potential pitfalls as well as steps you can take to be happy and successful in your role.

Remote Workers Are Passed Over for Promotions:

Either intentional or unintentional, remote employees face greater challenges compared to in-person workers such as less opportunity for promotion. A 2015 Stanford study found that although remote workers are more productive compared to their in office colleagues, they weren’t given the same opportunities for promotion. In fact, Nicholas Bloom, one of the Stanford study researchers, stated that the promotion rates were “roughly half compared to those in office.” 

Visibility and recency bias can definitely play a role here. When weighing promotion decisions, managers are more likely to consider in-person workers compared to remote workers. It makes sense that managers would be more likely to have growth conversations with the employees who are in the office via formal and informal conversations when in close proximity. Other research corroborates this – employees who mainly worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted than all other employees. They were also 38% less likely to receive a bonus compared to workers who never worked from home. 

Another factor contributing to the Zoom Ceiling is managers’ perceptions of employees who choose remote work instead of hybrid or in-person work. Managers may falsely believe remote workers by choice are less dedicated to their work compared to in-person employees. This is often surfaced in high paying, high demanding roles like investing banking. For example, in this Wall Street Journal article, managers view remote workers as having less “hustle.” A perception of less “hustle” could definitely impact one’s future career progression.

Minorities and Women Prefer Remote Work:

The Zoom Ceiling can affect anyone working remotely in a company or organization that has in-person or hybrid workers, but certain groups are disproportionately affected by this new barrier. In particular, minorities and women are more likely to opt for remote work which makes them more susceptible to the costs of the Zoom Ceiling.

Work from home has seemingly evened the playing field for all employees. This can be attributed to everyone sharing the same Zoom box in meetings, everyone having an ‘equal’ voice in Slack, and everyone being separated from management. Work from home has particularly benefited Black employees. In one survey, from 2020 to 2021 there was a 26% increase in Black respondents saying “I am treated fairly at work.” The same survey also found that other racial minorities such as, Asian, Hispanic, and Black employees want higher flexibility in where they work more than their White counterparts. The same line of thinking applied to women wanting to return to the office less can be used here – racial minorities will likely choose to work from home at higher rates.

In one of our most recent studies, The State of Employee Engagement Q3 2021, we asked people leaders to rate their return to work favorability using a 5 point scale with response options ranging from “Very Unfavorable” to “Very Favorable.”

Male HR/people leaders view returning to work in-person more favorably than women. In fact, the gap has increased from 5.9% in Q2 2021 to 12.5% in Q3 2021. This highlights that if an organization provides remote and in-person options, men will choose the latter at a higher rate. 

Research shows that women will more frequently choose to work from home because they are frequently saddled with more childcare and home responsibilities. But with that choice, comes sacrifices. With men in the office more often and women working from home more often, women won’t be able to get as much face time with leaders. Less face time with work leadership will ultimately result in less recognition for performance and subsequently less opportunity for career advancement.

Here’s what leaders can do:

All in all, it’s clear that the Zoom Ceiling affects all remote workers from the employee who chooses to return to his hometown to take care of ailing parents to the employee who gets a better opportunity from a company based in a city hundreds of miles away but chooses to remain in their current city. At the same time, it’s also clear that the Zoom Ceiling will disproportionately impact minorities and women because they are more likely to choose remote work. Employees considering remote work should be fully aware of how remote work may impact their career trajectory. In addition, organizations who do not address the Zoom Ceiling will experience a serious talent drain when remote workers exit to seek career advancement. 

Everyone has a role in reducing the negative impact of the pandemic and ultimately, the Zoom Ceiling. Broadly, the first step is changing how we view the choice to work remotely. I have five tried and true tactics that can shatter the Zoom Ceiling for remote employees and provide success in any organization:

Formalize Remote Work Role Policies

If your organization is offering a remote work option, then clear policies and expectations need to be established. Remote work requires more communication through email, zoom and other technologies. Workers, managers, and HR should establish clear expectations for work processes, communication, scheduling, and performance. These clear expectations will help bridge the remote gap and enable remote workers to fulfill and potentially exceed expectations for their role.

1-on-1 Meeting with Managers

Frequent 1-on-1 meetings with managers are more important for remote workers compared to in-person workers. Remote work does not allow for spontaneous discussions and collaborations so workplaces with remote workers should ensure remote workers have regular opportunities to offer opportunities for collaboration and guidance. In addition, having a routine meeting can provide structure and increased social capital. Regular 1-on-1 meetings also provide managers with updates on remote employees’ performance and achievements. This information can promote equality when managers consider remote and in-person candidates for promotion. 

 Establish Equality for Meetings

Mixed audience meetings can quickly become disadvantageous for remote workers because in-person attendees can more freely interact and hear during meetings that are mixed with zoom and in-person attendees. When conducting meetings with a mixed audience of in-person workers and remote workers, ensure that in-person workers join the meeting virtually on separate computers so that all workers are included and have an equal chance to contribute during the meeting. Conducting all meetings virtually on hybrid teams has become standard practice for companies like Unito, a Montreal-based workflow management platform company.

Increase Flexibility for All Workers 

Remote workers may enjoy more schedule flexibility compared to in-person workers. This added benefit can perpetuate biases that remote workers are not as dedicated while also creating perceptions of unfairness from in-person workers. To increase fairness, inject flexibility into work schedules when possible so that all workers can better balance work, childcare, and other responsibilities. This flexibility should be interwoven into the culture so that all workers are supported when balancing their work and personal lives to remove bias and promote a healthy culture.

Standardize Performance Evaluation Methods

Performance evaluation forms and processes should be assessed and standardized to measure performance and work contributions as objectively as possible. In addition, organizational leaders should specifically evaluate whether their processes can equally assess performance of in-person workers and remote workers. Ensuring an equal assessment method will allow remote workers and in-person workers equal opportunity for promotion. For example, document in-person employees’ achievements by asking both remote workers and in-person workers about their recent achievements. Standardizing performance evaluation methods is also critical when evaluating candidates for new positions or promotions. For example, if one candidate can interview in person, but other candidates must meet virtually, then all interviews should take place virtually in order to avoid biasing applicant evaluation processes.

Related: 5 Major Advantages of Employees Working from the Office