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Law Students on Workers' Rights Series

The Costs of Remote Working

June 15, 2021

When Remote Work Leads to Overwork, Workers Pay The Price

By Ololade Akintunde 

The Law Students on Workers’ Rights series publishes essays from current and incoming students at some of the top law schools in the country. These essays, submitted for the Charles E. Joseph Employment Law Scholarship, address the question “What are the biggest challenges facing workers’ rights in the future?”

 On March 13, 2020, I left my office prepared to transition to remote working for what my employer––and the world––assumed would be for a two-week period. Little did we know COVID-19 would restructure the culture of the workplace, increasing our reliance on the efficiency of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Skype. 

For the past year, numerous industries have had no choice but to conduct their affairs virtually in response to the pandemic. Advancements in technology have aided in adapting our day-to-day lives to what has been dubbed “the new normal.” While it would be unfair to minimize the developments that the remote world has presented to the workplace, there are valid concerns about what this shift could mean for workplace culture post-pandemic. 

Remote working has increased workers’ productivity, but at what cost? There are blurred lines between workers’ home and work life and as a result, there may be serious implications for various groups including employees with children and employees of racial minority groups. 

Working virtually has allowed millions of Americans to maintain financial stability but distinct boundaries between work and home are virtually dissolved. As opposed to leaving work at five and getting the car, there are no grand actions to symbolize the end of the workday has arrived. Emails to coworkers can easily be sent after hours and there may be an expectation to respond or complete a task whereas, in normal circumstances, the matter would be handled at the start of the work the next day. 

In April 2020, Bloomberg reported those who began working from home in March 2020 were working three more hours per day than before. Americans pride themselves on productivity and aspire to consistently get things accomplished. Overworking can easily be mistaken for being hardworking and may give the false perception that those who are simply keeping up and not overexerting themselves beyond the typical workday in this new normal may be less efficient or less enthusiastic about their tasks. 

For an employee who may not have a spouse or may not have children yet, overworking may only infringe on their social lives. However, employees with families are forced to balance keeping their homes in order while attempting to manage the workload remotely. They may face pressure to overextend themselves just because all of the work they do can be done virtually. Workers benefit from being at home but for this particular group, they may worry about the perception of their productivity and jobs may reward those who continue to overwork. 

Likewise, working virtually during this pandemic has had implications for employees of racial minority groups. Racial discrimination is the second most reported kind of workplace discrimination and remote working could potentially fuel that. 

COVID-19 has significantly impacted Black Americans more than white Americans. According to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, Black Americans are three times more likely to get COVID-19 than our white counterparts. As a result, one can infer Black Americans are more likely to know someone who has suffered or died from the virus. 

In a virtual setting, combining the possibility of burnout from an expectation to be overproductive and the real-world pandemic systematically affecting one group more than another can be psychologically overbearing. The possibility of Black workers wanting to take a step back may increase but the likelihood of it actually occurring may be minimal. While as a society we have made racial progress, there are still racial stereotypes Black workers in corporate spaces must combat. It is often said, “we work twice as hard just to be seen as half as good.” The new culture of the virtual workplace can feed into the idea that Black workers aren’t up to par and cannot handle the pace and weight of the work, easily leading to an environment for discrimination to take place. 

It is important to acknowledge the benefits virtual working has presented in the workplace, but it is equally pivotal to address the disadvantages and the domino effect of challenges it could have on various groups within the setting. It is important for businesses and organizations to address workers’ rights at the root of the issue and create an environment favorable for everyone. 

Reflections from Charles Joseph

The pandemic reshaped our world in 2020, and as Ololade Akintunde astutely notes, its effects will continue long into the future. While remote work offers employees more flexibility, it also creates the possibility for overwork––and potentially wage theft. Not paying for all hours worked constitutes wage theft, and as remote work blurs the barriers between work and home, workers risk missing out on compensation. 

Akintunde also makes a compelling argument about the possibility of race discrimination in a virtual environment. Without strong workplace protections, remote work could negatively impact workers’ rights.

Ololade Akintunde is a rising 2L at Georgetown Law where she participates in the Barristers’ Council trial advocacy team. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology from the University of Georgia. Contact Akintunde on LinkedIn.

Charles Joseph has over two decades of experience as an NYC employment lawyer. He is the founder of Working Now and Then and the founding partner of Joseph and Kirschenbaum, a firm that has recovered over $140 million for clients.

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