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Remote work is a diversity issue – post-COVID, digital industries have no excuse

By Joanna Duffy, Product Marketing Manager at Permutive

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. With some effort, they also don’t know that you’re in chronic pain, constantly fatigued, and sometimes haven’t left bed for days. 

The impacts of isolation and medical fears have become a common experience this past year. For those of us familiar with chronic illness, they’re a reality we’ve been figuring out how to properly manage and articulate for much longer.

Just before graduating from university, I got terribly ill. I dodged a 10% mortality rate, kept all my limbs, and didn’t suffer cognitive impairment. I was lucky. But my health, and my career outlook would be impacted for years. I was freshly out of the hospital, on the cusp of my twenties with a law degree, top marks, and a decimated immune system. I needed to refocus towards an industry I could sustainably thrive in. I gravitated towards tech startups with decentralized teams and a digital nomad ethos, allowing me to quietly heal on my own terms, working remotely when needed. 

COVID is an opportunity to reduce the stigma around discussing illness in the workplace. That’s absolutely crucial. But if employers want to truly accommodate diverse realities, they’ll remain flexible with their remote work policies, giving those recovering from or living with illness more agency over how they disclose their conditions.

Reducing the fears of disclosure

Chronic illness is inconsistent. Flare-ups and fatigue require ongoing lifestyle adjustments, and patterns can be hard to identify. Autoimmune diseases, for example, are notoriously difficult to diagnose. Around 80% of all patients diagnosed with autoimmune diseases are women. It doesn’t help that the medical profession is comparatively less equipped to treat women, and often dismisses them as hypochondriacs. 

That inconsistency, coupled with concerns around professional repercussions often lead to dilemmas around disclosure, impacted by fears of discrimination, perceived favoritism, or loss of employment overall. Researchers estimate that between 15–20% of the working-age population live with chronic illness. Creating workplace conditions for healthy dialogue around these conditions is (understandably, universally) recommended, but studies find that 

employees don’t want to share more than they need to in order to do their jobs. Normalizing remote work can significantly reduce the burden of explaining oneself and sharing personal information that risks defining them in the workplace. 

A new layer of diversity

Making remote work work isn’t equally easy across sectors, but if they’re truly committed to diversity, the digital industries have no excuse. Updated policies have the potential to close the wage gap for those who need it the most. But It’s not just the ill or disabled who stand to benefit. The lockdown has shown us that balancing an at-home office and childcare isn’t something to romanticize– but how many single parents could it keep in the workforce? Almost a million adults have currently given up paid work to become carers. How many could have remained employed remotely? Could remote work ease transitions back after pregnancy, or miscarriage? How many more employees might have a chance at home ownership outside urban hubs? 

I’d like to hope that in 2021, I don’t need to make the argument for the value of diversity in the workplace. Working from home allows for more of the population to bring diverse experiences and perspectives to the workforce, with the dignity of choice around how best to disclose their source. COVID proved that remote work is possible. With some adjustments, remote-first companies can thrive. Employers should keep the option open, and let their employees’ work speak for itself.

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