Podcast 27 min

Remote Talks: Episode 12 with Ellen Pao and McKensie Mack - Creating People-First Remote Workplaces

July 16, 2021
Preston Wickersham


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Welcome to Remote Talks!

Remote Talks is a series of video interviews with the brightest minds in remote work and global employment, hosted by Remote CEO Job van der Voort. This week features two very special guests: Ellen Pao, CEO of Project Include and former CEO of Reddit, and McKensie Mack, anti-oppression consultant and founder of MMG, a social justice organization based in Chicago.

To see the full interview, watch the video on this page or view the Remote Talks playlist on YouTube.

You recently co-authored a report on harassment and mental health in remote work. What did you learn?

Job: Regular listeners know that I care very much about the intersection of diversity, inclusion, and remote work. Project Include, you recently published a harassment report with that alone.

I have been reading that with great interest and a bit of shock too, to be honest. Could you give a slight overview of what were the findings of the report? What is it about? I'm also very interested in all these, beyond just interest. What gets you started on something like this?

Ellen: Project Include has always been very data-oriented. When we learned during the pandemic that there were more people who were experiencing harassment and hostility working remotely, we decided to take a data-based approach and survey remote workers, and see what we found.

We ended up surveying almost 3,000 people. I want McKensie to dive into the results. It's been a very sobering look at what remote workplaces mean, and also the presence of all of these biases and problems that are in our offices and our physical workplaces and how they carried through to our remote workplaces. And in many cases were exacerbated.

Job: Having seen the report, what was your response on a high-level overview, high-level thoughts?

McKensie: We talked about a lot as a research team the fact that 85% of workers have been experiencing increased anxiety since COVID-19. That's so important to name at the outset because it speaks to the ways in which all of us are impacted by the global pandemic and the ways in which oftentimes we think of work as being separate from our personal life.

85% of workers are experiencing increased anxiety since Covid-19.

We think of the emotional impacts, the intellectual impacts, the mental impacts of the pandemic being something that we experienced most at home. But the reality is that, of course, that impact is going to follow us at the workplace. And not only is it going to follow us as individuals, but it's had a major impact, for example, on the way that black and brown folks, Asian folks, other people of color, women and non-binary people, folks with disabilities, are being treated within these remote workplaces.

Black, non-binary people, and women are nearly three times as likely as non-binary people and women in general, to experience race-based hostility. Trans people are nearly twice as likely to have experienced increased gender-based harassment since COVID-19. Ninety-eight percent of those folks who experienced increased gender-based harassment were women or non-binary folks.

See also: 8 experts discuss mental health tips for remote teams

When we think about just some of these numbers, because that's not an exhaustive listing of our findings, but what we know from those findings is that the ways in which folks are experiencing harm and harassment in the remote workplace is increasing. Versus what I think some folks might think would be the opposite in that you're not in the office, you're not in a physical space with folks. So maybe there is not as much contact with people. The opposite is true in that. Folks going into these remote workplaces are now experiencing even more harm than previously.

Where should companies be more vigilant about harassment in remote work?

Job: It's honestly shocking to read for me. The numbers are chilling in and of itself. I know it's a stretch, but do you have a personal goal theory? Do you have thoughts on, why is it an accessory of remote work? What is it that changed other than the absence of the office?

McKensie: First I'll start with something that's not a personal theory. These are systemic problems, right? And systemic inequities that existed long before the pandemic. That's not a personal theory. That's an actionable and tangible reality, especially within tech.

We think of systemic inequity as being like water in a pot. And then you add the stress of a global pandemic, where there are a lot of folks that are feeling powerless, as if they don't have control of their environment, because they really are not in control. The pandemic could be, in this analogy, considered sort of like the fire.

So you have the water that's already been there. And then you add the heat of increased anxiety across the board for folks, regardless of their gender identity, sexuality, race. What eventually happens is you get an uptick in harm, because then those folks who hold the most privilege and power within companies are feeling that sense of anxiety and also feeling a lot of concern for the future of their companies, and potentially then exacerbate those issues, harassment, because now they're creating an environment that's even more controlling and domineering.

One example I heard: there was a remote company where folks were actually required to check in with their managers remotely, at least three to four times a day. Why would you need to check in with your manager that many times in an eight hour period? Of course, that's going to really raise a person's sense of anxiety within the workplace. That's also going to increase the likelihood that somebody is going to be harmed, especially if it's that much control being pushed onto workers in that environment.

We’re strongly against monitoring remote employees. How can remote managers do better without these invasive tools?

Job: One thing that we see in a lot of examples is that employers start to monitor their employees with software that actively monitors employees. You see all sorts of trends on the internet, “I have to make sure my mouse keeps moving,” so that they give a false sense of presence at work. I always find that somewhat of a scary prospect that would be very uncomfortable, working in an environment where someone feels the need to constantly check on me and to look at what I'm doing.

Ellen: A big part of it is also that people aren't great managers sometimes, right? If I don't trust my workers and I don't know how to manage them, then I'm going to use these surveillance tools or I'm going to use these check-ins because I'm not confident that they're actually doing the work that I'm asking them to do.

I might have too many Zoom meetings or phone calls, or I might have the keystroke checks or the mouse checks, or there are some companies that are using software that keeps the video on and that's watching you work all day. All of these aspects are tied to this problem: that there is a lack of trust between the employees and the companies and the managers.

Part of the reason why we're seeing increased harassment and hostility in all forms, gender-based, race-based, sexual orientation-based, it's because employees don't trust their companies to deal with these problems. So they don't report, they don't bring them up, they don't try to resolve them. And then, the person who's perpetuating the harm continues, and other people might be observing that it's okay and it's allowed.

Sometimes we had survey responses say it was like their head of HR or it was their CEO who had the inappropriate comments or the inappropriate behavior. That just fostered a culture where the harm-doers felt comfortable doing harm, and the people who are experiencing the harm did not feel comfortable reporting it. That's a big problem.

In this pandemic timeframe, we also saw huge protests against systemic racism. We saw a lot of racism in the counter protests. We saw racism against Asians coming from the then-president of the United States. We saw all sorts of issues people were struggling to deal with which caused anxiety to the people from the groups being discriminated against. It was also a threat to the people who have enjoyed these privileges and who feel entitled. All of a sudden they're facing people calling for change, and that change is uncomfortable.

In order to restore the control that they want, that McKensie brought up, they may be more hostile. There may be more harassing. We're fostering this environment where they're allowed to do that. They're also feeling this work pressure and anxiety from all of these additional factors.

Many organizations falsely believe they don’t have these kinds of problems. What should leaders be doing more of?

Job: Many people will be listening to this and they'll be thinking, “Well, that's other organizations. That's not happening in my organization.” One of the things that the report found was that leadership is often not aware of problems existing in their organization, or maybe getting worse through word of mouth through the pandemic. What are some of the things leadership can do? The people that are listening right now who think to themselves, “Well, I'm not aware of these kinds of problems.”

McKensie: I love this question. Thank you so much for asking it. I think it's in alignment with something that Ellen just shared, where she talked about how there are folks who don't trust their companies to actually do something about harm and harassment in the workplace.

There are folks who don't trust their companies to actually do something about harm and harassment in the workplace.

In addition to that comment, I would add that also there are a number of leadership teams within tech who don't trust their workers to actually tell the truth about what the culture is like. Who are like, “If you're coming to me with something critical or negative, it must be because something is wrong with your perception, or you just can't cut it in this environment.” One of the first beginning pieces around that is, are leaders actually developing processes where workers can speak honestly about their lived experiences?

One example of that is through an equity audit, where it's a mixed-methods research process that's held and implemented by an external partner that includes both qualitative and quantitative analysis of what's happening within an organization. That within that qualitative piece offers workers confidentiality, so that they can actually share honestly about their experiences and really talk about the ways in which they are experiencing the culture. Which can happen where they experience not just harassment, but it can also happen where they're sharing experiences around operations and the ways in which, potentially, situations from colleague to colleague that start off as conflict...but because there are no systems and no education as to how to deal with conflict, they can easily become harm and harassment. If left unattended to. It's really about providing those resources, but then also creating some sort of a data-informed strategy for how culture can be evaluated over time.

Job: The idea being that if you start to implement changes, you test again, you measure again, and you see how the organization progresses. Exactly.

Can training, such as bystander training, help reduce these problems for remote teams?

McKensie: What's happening right now in remote working environments, within tech specifically, is there are a lot of leaders who might hear a complaint of harassment and the response is, “Okay, give them bystander training.”

There's nothing inherently bad about bystander training. Bystander training is really good. We're talking about identifying harm, stopping harm, intervening. At the same time...we're providing these resources and tools, but what actually is the state of harm in our organization? What's the state of repair in our organization, our company? In addition to that, what kinds of systems have we put into place so that people can anonymously report their experiences, and then what happens to those reports?

It's not enough just to provide the space, but then are we actually listening to what people are sharing? Are we actually evaluating that? If we have established it, is it something that actually informs our company strategy in the long term?

Ellen: Part of it is solving the root problem, which is does your company actually value inclusion? Does it actually want people to be treated equitably and to ensure that that's happening? A lot of times you do need training. We have a set of company values that includes these concepts of fairness and equity. We have a set of expectations, whether it's in a code of conduct or in the processes that you run, that incorporate these ideas of fairness and equity and justice.

If there are people who don't understand it, maybe they need to go to training. Maybe they need to understand the history of our country, the history of our systems, and understand this is what we're fighting against and that we need to make sure we're not incorporating into our companies.

For a lot of companies that means training your leadership, training your CEO, and training your board. It comes from the top and it works its way down. People look to the leaders for their behavior and their statements for direction. If your leaders don't understand it and aren't practicing it, it's not going to happen in the rest of the organization.

Why are companies struggling with inequity in employee benefits?

McKensie: Let's say there's a tech company. Within that company, leaders are saying, “We want to improve the ways in which our employees are experiencing the workplace. We know that there are a lot of folks that are reported experiencing burnout. We're going to provide them with access to a mental health app, a wellness app. That's going to be the way that we're going to solve the burnout issue.”

See also: The best employee benefits to attract top global talent

Again, not inherently bad, but if you're not actually getting to the root of what's creating that burnout, you're just basically putting a Band-Aid on it. So we need surgery.

Something that we recommended is thinking about the ways in which time off benefits are structured, and having a required minimum for people to take time off. Because we know that in the society that we live in, organizational trauma is very real. Even if you have a fairly decent and very welcoming time off policy where people are validated and affirmed to taking time off, depending on folks’ past experiences, they still just may or may not do it.

Job: The vacation days are very relevant. We hear this a lot in the tech industry, where everybody gives unlimited vacation days, but the reality is if you take more vacation days, you're more likely to leave the company permanently. When we started Remote, we immediately implemented a minimum amount of days off, exactly to prevent this. I think we actually struggle to get people to the point of taking enough time off. I think it's 20 days that we have now, a little bit more than that. We'll start to see that people haven't taken their proportional amount of vacation days off, and we have to start telling them, “You have to start taking vacation days off, or you will have to take the entire month of December.”

You should actually be taking them off. I think that is so challenging. There's a very different attitude as an employer, where I think in the past it was culturally acceptable as an employer to not. So essentially those days are like a gift to the employees. Whereas now if you're a good employer, it's your duty to do the opposite. To say look, you have to be living life and doing well in your life to be able to do a good job, and we cannot expect it to be the other way around.

How can companies be better about ensuring employees actually take enough time off?

Ellen: You have to make sure that people don't feel pressure that they're missing out on that time to do work. That when they get back to work, they're going to be overwhelmed. One reason people might not be taking their time off is because they feel like they are underwater and they will get even more underwater.

There's already all of this additional anxiety around the pandemic. People are working longer hours. They don't think the work will stop. They have the same amount of work. If I take a day off, then I have to do twice as much work that day that I come back. So giving people a sense of a lighter workload, that during those times off, you're not actually accruing more work. You're given a real day off. You have the same level of work when you return. That part is not happening for a lot of people. They don't feel confident. That day off becomes one filled with anxiety at what they're going to return to.

Job: One of the coolest things I've seen recently was a company where the out-of-office reply was, “I'm out of office. All incoming email will be deleted.” They're like, if you need something from me, I'm available again after July 15, and you will have to resend your email because the email will be deleted.

If you really think about it, it's a reasonable thing. I think we all know exactly what you're saying. I come back to work from vacation, and I have a massive email inbox. Do I declare email bankruptcy? That is easier to do if you're hiring in an organization, but for most people that is not at all something that you might feel comfortable doing. Although I really hope that the people in our accounts payable don't apply that strategy.

What can companies do to make benefits more inclusive?

Job: So we deal with benefits in every country in the world. What we see is that statutory benefits are all over the place. In particular maternity leave. In some countries it is independent of the parent, whether it's the father or their mother or caretaker, whether it is an adoption or not. In other countries the mother gets maternity leave and the father has to return to work after three days. If you're a modern company, how should you approach this in the first place?

McKensie: Something that I would like to see more from companies is being more imaginative around the ways in which they develop benefits for their workers. I'll give an example of Patagonia in the seventies, and the idea at that time offering people parental leave was considered just so forward-moving and so progressive.

I'm sure at that time a lot of companies considered it to be something that was completely and totally unnecessary. Now we consider it to be, not in all companies, unfortunately, but in a lot of companies, we consider it to be something that is absolutely required. Something that is a basic necessity for benefits.

It's really pushing companies to think about what it means to be as imaginative as possible. How are you actually listening to your employees, getting a better understanding of what their needs are, and then applying that to the ways in which you frame your strategy around benefits?

A big one too is being as trans inclusive as possible. For example, there are a number of companies that when they're referring to benefits, they use terms like maternal leave. We know that there are men with babies, there are non-binary people with babies and children, and also parents who adopt children, who foster children. Those who have children in their lives and are caring for children. It's thinking expansively about the ways in which people experience life and understanding that what might've been acceptable and reasonable in the nineties or in the eighties is going to be completely different now.

As we evolve and grow, we should become more considerate of the ways in which our companies and cultural environments are able to have an impact on our society.

Job: I think it makes total sense. From our perspective, we see this internationally playing out very differently.. We now see countries where it is parental leave in any form. It's independent of what their exact relationship is, independent of gender, it's as exactly as you would want to design these kinds of things.

We see the exact opposite as well. The classic example of the mother who gave birth is the one that gets time off, and that's it. There's no reason that the employers don't give better policies and set better standards. You don't have to follow necessarily what is statutory or what the government prescribes.

You don't have to follow necessarily what is statutory or what the government prescribes.

What kind of innovations can companies pursue to address these issues of benefits? Who is responsible?

Ellen: McKensie and I would love to see companies be more innovative. Instead of taking that minimal approach of, “What do I need to provide?” to start thinking out of the box, to start thinking in a more humane way in this whole movement around workers with dignity.

What do we need to provide in order to let people lead dignified lives? The one additional point, I wish people would think about how they actually implement these policies. We've heard from a lot of people that they don't feel comfortable taking some of benefits that, while the benefit has been offered, certain groups aren't allowed to take them. When they apply for the benefit or when they inform their manager that they're taking leave, they're rejected from it. Others feel like they don't have the position or the goodwill, an entitlement to take these benefits.

See also: Women in the era of remote work: What's new and what's next?

It would be great for people to track who's actually taking these benefits and using them and who is not. For your company, who are these people who aren't taking 20 days across the year, do they fall into specific categories? Do they have specific functions? Are they in specific levels? Do they have one manager? Are there patterns that you can see where there's a problem that might be deeper than just, “I'm not taking the benefit because I forgot about it, or because I haven't been thinking about it,” but there's actually something a little bit more systemic in why they're not doing it. I wish people would look at that and think about, “How are we implementing it in a way that makes sure that everybody who's entitled to it actually takes it, because we're offering it for people to use.”

Job: One of the things that we try to do is to partially make this the responsibility of their manager. So that you, as a manager, are responsible not just for growing a team and coaching the people that report to you, but also making sure that they take time off, making use of the benefits that the employer provides.

I've experienced this myself. If you have a manager that pushes you to take time off, to say, “No, you have to take time off. It's part of my evaluation of you. Are you actually taking care of yourself? Are you actually making use of the benefits that you've had?”

I think that is the situation not many people have been in, but if you are in that situation, it's really empowering. There's not this inherent bad feeling of taking time off. “I'm making use of these company resources that have technically have been allocated to me, but in reality, I'm just taking something away without rewarding you back immediately with work.”

How can companies help employees not feel guilty about using their benefits?

McKensie: We talked about education earlier, and I think it's recognizing that. Right before this call I was on a call with three founders of a health tech startup. One of the things that we were talking about was how when you're hiring folks, you're being very intentional and aware about your hiring strategies and recognizing the ways in which people are actually impacted by systemic inequities.

If I were looking at the demographics of an organization, based on the intersecting demographics, I probably could make a lot of assumptions about who's going to be really comfortable taking time or actually using benefits as a whole. Who is not going to be comfortable and confident doing that because of the ways in which our society has been structured around our identities.

It's important to recognize that people need not only an invitation, but the more that folks have experienced systemic inequities and the more that folks have experienced organizational trauma, the more support that they're going to need. Actually taking those benefits and taking that time, which is going to be modeling for them that the time can be taken. It's going to be modeling for them that they actually can. Let folks know that they are taking parental leave and don't have to worry about if they're going to come back to a job or not.

It's going to be modeling the fact that people can take, for example, self-care days or mental health days. That's something that they're not going to be punished for in the future. Explicitly saying that on a regular basis and including that in employee handbooks, including that in consistent and regular training. Instead of recognizing if we are actually being innovative and being as imaginative as possible around our benefits, we have to recognize that we have to create a runway for our workers so we can take them along with us. Which means providing explanations and being very clear about what our intentions are.

Ellen: McKensie's suggestions will also help with a culture shift. For many companies, these additional benefits are new, and there will be some workers who don't agree with them, or don't value them, or shun or make fun of the people who are taking them. I remember the first person that I knew who took what was called a paternity leave at the law firm that I worked at. He didn't take the full 16 weeks. He came back early because people were not kind to him.

They said that he was shirking his duties as a lawyer. That internal behavior from your colleagues and your coworkers can be very intimidating and prevent you from taking the benefits, even if a company is saying the right thing from the leadership level.

Job: These kinds of things flow from leadership. They set the right examples. If they simply ignore these kinds of problems, if they ignore these attitudes within the organization, then that creates a toxic environment.

These kinds of things flow from leadership. They set the right examples.

What is the next big step for remote work inclusivity?

McKensie: I am going to shout out organizations like Project Include Code 2040, the Algorithmic Justice League. I say that because I think one of the ways that we get to a future like this is a way that we get to, for example, better legislation within our society.

It takes a lot of mobilizing and organizing of people around these issues. A lot of educating folks who potentially might be in tech, but may not be in positions where they actually wield power and authority to be able to change systems but do have power to be able to use their voice, to name the ways in which systems that are being created within these companies.

In addition to that, it takes companies being willing to make commitments that are tangible and actionable. Commitments that go beyond the diversity statement and “We support the Black Lives Matter movement. We stand in solidarity with Asian communities.”

Commitments that actually are measurable, where you could look from one year to the next, see the ways in which an action that's been taken is actually making progress or even see the ways in which it's been ineffective, which is still a very important data point. Because if we know the kinds of things that we've done in the past, we know that they haven't worked and we know why they haven't worked. It puts us in a better position to be able to create systemic solutions to systemic problems that are not focused on tools — tools are not the problem here — but that are actually focused on people and systems.

Ellen: I also think there's a change in general public perception. The new generation of workers, they want diversity and inclusion. Benefits are one way that they measure whether a company is diverse and inclusive. They are going to make the decision with their feet. They're either going to join a company or they're not going to, and that's going to put pressure on the company to incorporate better benefits, to incorporate better practices, to think about it more from the CEO level down. Because our world is changing.

The next generation has a much different perspective because they're much better informed. They're more aware of all of these systemic problems that we grew up with. I grew up, I didn't know about any of it. I grew up thinking the world was a meritocracy, and it was a shock when I went into the workplace and I tried to process all of the things that were happening that didn't make sense. Until I finally really came to the realization, “Oh, wow, this is a systemic problem. It's not an isolated incident.”

They will also change the cultures of our companies as they become more and more of a bigger percentage of the employee base. I also know that there are a lot of CEOs who are thinking about these issues in a deep and meaningful way. A lot of them are struggling there. It's not something that they've experienced. They don't have the lived experiences and they have to learn that. People are telling, sharing their experiences. They're talking about the problems. We're seeing a lot of data coming through. The organizations at McKensie mentioned, in addition to Project Include. The data's out there, the stories are out there. We're going to see a next generation of leaders that doesn't look like the generation that we've had for the last 30 years in tech.

We're seeing more and more CEOs who are not white men. Who are more black or brown, who are Asian, who are indigenous, who are women, who are non-binary, who are transgender. It's a different world. As we see more of the people who don't share the old views, who are bringing in these new ideas, who are changing the way benefits look, we'll see many of them be successful. And we'll see them leading the way, and having other companies follow and emulate their success, because they want to be in this next generation of leaders.

McKensie Mack can be found at McKensieMack.com. Ellen Pao can be found at ProjectInclude.org. Read the full Project Include Harassment Report by Ellen, McKensie, Yang Hong, and Caroline Sinders for more information.

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