Hybrid work could create a '2-tier system': A psychologist, historian, and economist on the future of the office

"Remote workers are second-class citizens" in the workplace.


Companies are cautiously transitioning white-collar workers back to the office, with some requiring employees to go back later this year and others prepping for an early 2022 return. Many are embracing a hybrid work model, which allows employees to split their work hours between the office and home. What that looks like depends on the company: Some want employees in on certain days, while others are allowing workers to choose when, if at all, they would like to come in.

Whether the hybrid work model could hurt or hinder employees in the long run is the source of much debate. Some experts say remote workers could be "left behind" as they will be excluded from face time with bosses and impromptu opportunities. Others say it could promote inclusivity.

Whatever the outcome, many workers are pushing for flexibility. More than half of workers, 52%, prefer a hybrid work model, according to a recent McKinsey survey. And 30% of employees said they are likely to switch jobs if required to return to the office full time.

Some workers say they would even be willing to take a pay cut if an employer offered them the option to work remotely full time, according to a survey by insurance company Breeze.

Will the shift to hybrid work, in the end, benefit employees? Or will it "create a two-tier system," as some scholars fear? Here's what a labor historian, an economist, a disability rights activist, and other experts who study the workplace say is likely.

'Wars have brought the greatest amount of change in working conditions'

The pandemic prompted a sudden shift to remote and hybrid work — and there's historical precedence for the idea that change can stick.

Workplace shifts tend to happen after devastating events, says Joseph McCartin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. "In a sense a pandemic is kind of like a war because it requires a kind of mass social mobilizing to deal with it," he says. "Historically in America, wars have brought the greatest amount of change in working conditions and worker expectations."

The eight-hour workday might not have been federally adopted had WWI not created a labor shortage during which striking employees called for workdays to be reduced from 12 hours, for example. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which limits the workweek to 44 hours, or 8.8 hours per day, was not enacted until 1938. Still, the wartime worker shortage no doubt led to the adoption of more progressive policies, McCartin says.

Disaster-spurred changes have a better chance of sticking, he adds: "Changes initiated now are more likely to diffuse through the economy in coming years than they are to be rolled back."

Remote workers may see the 'status hierarchy' shift ...

Pre-pandemic, the perceived value of face-to-face conversations in traditional offices negatively affected remote workers, says Adam Galinsky, a professor of leadership and ethics at the Columbia Business School. "A historic disadvantage remote workers face is visibility and informal interaction, which are somewhat crucial," he explains.

Even if you could attend a meeting on Zoom, key decisions might be made during informal chats: "There's the meeting before the meeting, [and] the meeting after the meeting," as Galinsky puts it.

How to avoid burnout at work during the pandemic

Video by Courtney Stith

That led to remote workers being less valued, he says: "Remote workers are second-class citizens [in the workplace]. They are treated worse, they get lower raises, lower promotion rates, but they are productive."

Now, he says, there is "potential for status hierarchy to reverse." Because companies have seen how productive some workers can be from home, it is harder to justify valuing those who come into the office more than those who don't. For the last year, pretty much everyone in the office lacked visibility, so those face-to-face conversations will not hold the same weight they once did.

... unless hybrid work creates a 'two-tier system'

Flexibility will not benefit everyone if those in the office are still valued more, though, says Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University.

A hybrid work model "could lead to certain individuals getting promotions, clients, getting the better machinery that might be doled out to those who were there versus those who weren't there," she says. "Of those who aren't there, which would disproportionally women, we worry a ghetto would be produced."

More than 40% of millennial women said remote work is very important or extremely important moving forward, according to a new survey from theSkimm. More than 1 in 5, 22%, said they would no longer consider working for an employer if work from home wasn't an option.

Changes initiated now are more likely to diffuse through the economy in coming years than they are to be rolled back.
Joseph McCartin
professor of history at Georgetown University

Sapna Cheryan, a psychology professor at the University of Washington who studies stereotypes and identity in the workplace, agrees that a hybrid system could "backfire." Historically, she says, offices have fostered "masculine defaults," by which she means that workplaces reward characteristics and behavior associated with men. "Working a lot of hours, going out for drinks, a lot of travel — all that is hard if you're doing child care at the same time."

A hybrid work model could make these masculine defaults less valued, but it could also enforce a divide.

"If a lot of people are still going into the office and it's still valued to do those kind of longer workdays, and travel a lot and go out in the evening, and the workplaces offer this flexibility but it's only women who are taking it or people who are otherwise marginalized, it could create this two-tier system," Cheryan says. "Workers who are going to be more successful are those who come in and don't fit the hybrid model."

'Accommodations will be standard operating practice'

Ideally, companies will not treat those who need to stay home more, for whatever reason, differently than those who can come in, says Kathryn Martinez, the president and CEO of Disability Rights Advocates.

She expects flexibility will become more common. "The concept of accommodations has been for people with disabilities, but we all need accommodations when we work," she says.

Working a lot of hours, going out for drinks, a lot of travel — all that is hard if you're doing child care at the same time.
Sapna Cheryan
psychology professor at the University of Washington

"As a blind person, I enjoy working from home — but that has nothing to do with blindness, it has to do with preferences and productivity levels," she adds. "I think the concept of accommodations being so 'special' is because they are for people with disabilities." With a hybrid model in place, though, "the concept of accommodations will be standard operating practice."

Managers and executives will have to make extra efforts to ensure that those who take advantage of the flexibility are not informally penalized for doing so, she says: "As a leader, it's up to me to make sure people that need to stay at home more than others do not get left behind and do not get excluded from opportunities."

More from Grow: