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Consider the castaways of remote academic working

There's much to embrace about remote working, but if it's to become a way of life, its potential to worsen inequalities must be recognised, says Eszter Szilassy.
This article is more than 3 years old

Eszter Szilassy is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Academic Primary Care at the Bristol Medical School at the University of Bristol.

Many people have felt right at home with distance work during the lockdown. Academic communities have discovered some of the benefits of a simpler life, as well as new opportunities for global connections and participation.

The seemingly smooth move to remote academic work over the past months cast campus-based office space in an entirely new light. Many saw an emerging rationale for smaller building footprint and decreased estate costs across future universities.

At the same time there has been a growing recognition that the pandemic has reinforced existing power disparities and gender gaps in academia. Could a shift to more permanent ways of remote work risk creating new forms of inequalities in performance and progression?

Updating skills and transferring projects into an evolving online environment without the banal, yet, it turns out, vital exchanges of everyday work life, takes time, energy, and a great deal of adjustment. For some people, however, translating research and teaching into a new setting is not only a matter of adjustment. The virtual academic environment could amplify existing disadvantages and could build new and insurmountable barriers to inclusion.

There is much that we do not yet fully understand about the impact of transition to remote work on life chances and wellbeing. There are likely to be particular types or groups of academics who will fit in well in the growingly virtual university. And we need to be confident that universities will make efforts to accommodate the needs of those who might find themselves maladapted to the shift.

Magnified toxic inequalities

The lockdown has amplified existing challenges and created new ones. There needs to be a recognition of the different ways people have been affected by remote working during the pandemic. We also need to know much more about ways in which extended home working might affect outputs, opportunities, and mental health.

For many female academics, for example, who disproportionately continue to work around vastly increased amounts of hidden caring and domestic duties, research and teaching could become incompatible with home life. Exhausted by having to respond to a growing number of competing priorities, many could abandon all non-essential projects driven by their intellectual curiosity and the pressures of academia.

The barriers these choices create for women will continue to be painfully felt in future progression and promotion processes. If left unchecked, we could end up exacerbating existing gender inequalities where “domestic work” takes on a whole new meaning.

Access to funding, collaboration, or progression opportunities, are not universals across academia. They reflect deep-rooted social inequalities. Despite gestures of solidarity, universities have, for example, done very little to erase existing structural and cultural forms of racial discrimination. As long as the mismatch between universities’ values and the experience of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) colleagues exists, BAME staff will continue to be disproportionately affected by an increasingly precarious post-Covid-19 academic economy.

Falling through the gaps

While the post-pandemic world could reinforce existing structural inequalities in academia, it could also make other forms of disparities starker and yet less visible. Junior, less established, or poorly paid academics living tightly with other family members or peers, could struggle to carve out a physical and emotional workspace for themselves.

People could miss the only daily breakaway opportunities from a suffocating home life. Working in challenging circumstances, on inapt devices, exposed to the chaos of shared living space, many could not keep up with business-as-usual.

The demons of loneliness, depression and anxiety could move into people’s home offices to make it difficult to focus, create and feel safe. Overwhelmed with worries, uncertainties, and fear, and without the usual daily structures and professional or social support in place, people living with mental health difficulties could find themselves on the darkest peripheries of academic existence.

The competitive academic environment, mounting workload, and growing casualisation, if left unaddressed, will contribute to a further harsh increase in mental health issues. But isolation and remoteness will leave many more people, already blunted in their professional and personal potential, to suffer alone and in silence.

Finally, bearing in mind the increased global incidence of domestic violence and abuse during the pandemic, we’ll need to consider the possible detrimental impact of physical seclusion on the health and wellbeing of academics affected by domestic violence. Of course, disadvantages do multiply. Vulnerable groups could become left behind across the board.

Call out for evidence

People’s circumstances will change after the pandemic, but many aspects of people’s lives will extend far beyond. We need evidence behind the feasibility, effectiveness, and sustainability of home working. A nuanced understanding of its impact on people could inform cost savings driven decisions. This evidence could also help universities to predict where future problems with new work environments and blended working practices might develop well beyond the pandemic.

Working from home more does make a lot of sense and is indeed working well for many. Universities’ decisions, however, should be informed by wider evidence about people’s needs and should be driven by principles of equal opportunities, inclusivity, and a culture of support.

We need to also recognise if we are thinking about future solutions from a position of privilege, that our assumptions, if they remain untested, could have lasting effects on those whose voices are less heard.

2 responses to “Consider the castaways of remote academic working

  1. Interesting article, although home working can bring significant environmental benefits it is very important to consider the potential for it to increase inequalities and the pandemic has highlighted several ways this could happen.

    Equally though there are some people who benefit from home working and are disadvantaged by the kinds of working environments that have become more common in recent years. In particular, open plan offices, and especially hot desking, may be more difficult for people with autism, who are introverted, need adjustments like voice recognition or are over-fatigued by a daily commute. Some colleagues with a disability have noted that they face similar restrictions in every day life to those we are all now living with, and lockdown has actually helped as suddenly support is available for remote working – including more social support from colleagues on zoom or Teams.

    It is important not to assume that a working environment that suits one person will be best for everyone, but instead to enable more flexibility.

  2. I agree with Margaret, for some this has improved support and enabling massively.

    However for many setting up an ‘office’ space has not been without issues, many early career academics live in cramped HMO’s or flats which causes problems, then there’s the IPV problem which has caused some very hard to resolve issues. With wives/partners being stressed with having their partner under their feet all day and little personal time that was bad enough, but setting up an office space, especially when both are academics needing to work for their respective departments/Universities at the same time? One married couple I know were forced by his employers CCP virus requirements to set up a work office space in a ‘spare’ bedroom, what was her craft room, the increased friction has led to her assaulting him, at least twice, same sex couples have also reported similar issues. Thankfully our Trades Unions have negotiated as part of the on-going CCP virus amelioration work agreements with our employer that managers must have the extra training and options to enable those in such situations to return to working on-campus, the bigger issue is getting men in particular to admit there’s a problem, for too many being assaulted is preferable to loss of face, especially with their line manager…

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