How Managers Impact Fairness in Hybrid and Remote Work

 A remote worker browses his laptop

Employee Experience Leadership & Management Remote & Hybrid Culture

Consider these tips to avoid the pitfalls of an increasingly decentralized workplace culture.

Is there a crisis of unfairness in the workplace?

In a recent study from Gartner, 82% of employees said their work environment was unfair. The study went on to define the risks of unfairness: Employees in high-fairness environments perform at a level 26% higher than those who aren’t.

Fairness is a crucial piece of the Great Place To Work® model for high-trust workplace culture. Employees who don’t believe their environment is fair are unlikely to trust their leaders and their organization.

What makes a workplace fair?

In Great Place To Work research, when employees describe a fair workplace they focus on equity, impartiality, and justice.

“What employees told us was they needed to be in a place where rewards were equitable, where the environment was impartial, and where there was a sense of justice,” says Marcus Erb, vice president of data science and innovation at Great Place To Work.

Measures of fairness include:

  • Do employees feel treated fairly regardless of race, gender, age, or sexual orientation?
  • Do employees feel fairly compensated for their work?
  • Do employees perceive equal and fair opportunities for advancement?
  • Do employees see management as impartial?
  • Do employees feel they could appeal a manager’s decision and expect a fair hearing?

Fairness is one of the dimensions of great workplace culture that even great companies struggle to exhibit.

“Even the best of the best have a difficult time making sure everybody feels that it’s a fair workplace,” Erb says.

Is fairness changing?

Even great companies struggle to create workplaces that employees perceive as fair. That hasn’t changed much over the last few years.

“On the whole, it’s pretty stable,” Erb says.

That might surprise those who predict hybrid and remote work will unravel the fabric of the traditional workplace. In many ways, hybrid and remote work have been seen as a leap forward in creating more inclusive and equitable working environments.

Fairness has always been an issue for workers — hybrid and remote work just redefine the ways unfairness can appear.

Erb offers some examples of how employees are assessing fairness in today’s workplace:

  • Do I have the same opportunity to work a hybrid schedule?
  • Is my pay consistent with the concerns around inflation and global economic trends?
  • Are people being treated here fairly regardless of their race?

This places an even higher importance on managerial communication for remote and hybrid workers.

“It puts more onus on the manager and that day-to-day interaction you might have with your leader to create that sense of inclusion and fairness every day,” Erb says. “That’s your touch point as an employee. You might not have any other barometer to assess if you are being included and treated as a valued part of the larger group.”

Fairness has always been an issue for workers — hybrid and remote work just redefine the ways unfairness can appear.

Managers playing favorites

The emphasis on managers’ role in fairness is growing, but it has always been essential in great workplace culture.

For the past 30 years, Great Place To Work research has identified the importance of managers not “playing favorites.”

In the world of hybrid and remote work, it’s harder than ever to build that sense of trust.

Erb advises that managers focus on communication and recognition to bolster strained relationships with their team.

“It’s sharing of information,” he says. “Are you getting the same news that everybody else is? Are you getting it at the same time? Is it an afterthought?”

When it comes to recognition, the problem is visibility. Workers who don’t get face time are concerned with how they might advance in their career, or feel their contributions go unnoticed.

“Managers now need to be even better at making sure everybody on the screen gets to speak up, nobody gets excluded, and everybody is informed,” Erb says.

Erb’s advice is for managers to be intentional and systematic. It might feel boring to speak with every employee one by one, checking them off your list, but it’s crucial for fairness.

“If you don’t do that, whoever is not checked off on your list, it’s going to affect them, slow them down — which will slow your team down eventually,” Erb says.

“Managers now need to be even better at making sure everybody on the screen gets to speak up, nobody gets excluded, and everybody is informed." -- Marcus Erb, vice president of data science and innovation at Great Place To Work.

The cost of unfairness

Just how big of a problem is unfairness for business leaders?

Gartner’s research shows that unfairness can damage productivity and overall work quality, but there are other costs that unfairness adds to your balance sheet. Gartner reports that employees in high fairness environments are 27% less likely to quit.

“If you don’t have fairness, you’re going to have retention and burnout issues,” Erb says. Workers who feel unfairly compensated, unincluded, or undervalued are going to look for other workplaces. Or they might “stay but quit,” and remain on payroll without contributing their full skillset to the organization.

Workers concerned with fairness aren’t innovating or giving extra effort, and that lack of trust can create a pernicious cycle.

“Rather than the issues your business needs to deal with, you’re just trying to get people past the fairness concerns so you can deal with the next immediate burning issue,” Erb says.

Fairness is also a key issue for workers during a recession. In Great Place To Work research, the ability of employees to feel treated as a full member of the organization was a key indicator for thriving businesses during the Great Recession of 2008 to 2010.

For business leaders in the months ahead, a fair workplace environment could be a key tool for weathering the rough waters of inflation and global economic downturn.

As Erb puts it: “In a time of crisis, do you come together or are you worried about fairness? If you’re worried about fairness, you’re going to go protect yourself. You’re not going to overreach and think about the whole entire business.”


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Ted Kitterman