US tech workers say they're overworked and stressed amid Covid-19 shift to remote work

Many employers failed to adapt their policies to the unique circumstances of remote work,  a survey has found.
Many employers failed to adapt their policies to the unique circumstances of remote work, a survey has found.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - The Covid-19 pandemic-related shift to remote work exacerbated an already difficult year for many women and minorities in technology, a new survey shows. The workers said they felt increased pressure to be online outside of work hours and faced increased harassment through online tools.

The survey, published on Tuesday (March 30), aims to help leaders understand the subtle but pervasive ways the pandemic has made work more difficult. For example, 85 per cent of respondents said their anxiety increased in the last year. Two-thirds said they were working longer hours.

"There is a broad range of what we consider bad behaviour" on the part of employers, said Caroline Sinders, a researcher with Convocation Design and Research who is one of the authors of the report, published by Project Include, an organisation that advocates for inclusion in the tech industry. "Some of the stuff doesn't technically break rules, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be captured."

One goal of the research, Ms Sinders said, was to assess whether employees felt supported during a year of political upheaval, protests against racism, financial uncertainty and hundreds of thousands of deaths. "Do people feel like they have access to mental health resources? Are they allowed to take time off?" she asked. "The answer is pretty mixed."

The survey was open to the public and drew responses from close to 3,000 people, most of whom were in tech and many of whom identified as women or nonbinary. The results indicated that the harms of a mid-pandemic workplace disproportionately fell on those already on the margins of the tech industry. One in 10 respondents reported increased harassment based on race or ethnicity. A quarter of people felt more gender-based harassment than before the pandemic (98 per cent of those who did were women). And 23 per cent of workers over the age of 50 felt an increase in harassment or hostility based on their age.

Without the usual rhythms of in-person meetings and offices, the methods of harassment changed as well, the survey found. The more frequent offenders were chat, email or video meetings, where more than 40 per cent of respondents experienced harassment. Fewer people, about a quarter, saw harassment happen over other productivity tools. Most often, harassment took place in online or digital spaces that were less public.

Many employers failed to adapt their policies to the unique circumstances of remote work or clarified how to appropriately communicate. Ellen Pao, a founder of Project Include and an author of the study, said teachers are being trained how to run classes online, but fewer companies are training managers on how to adjust to new problems such as Zoom fatigue and work hour boundaries.

"A lot of managers in the tech world have not been trained to manage well in general, and when you add the complexities of switching to an online format, the communication is poor, and there are no new rules or policies to explain how to behave," said Ms Pao,a former CEO of social media company Reddit. "Expectations are blurry."

On top of all the changes, 35 per cent of respondents don't trust their companies to address harm fairly, the study showed, so they are less likely to report harassment or other problems.

To Ms Sinders, the study's co-author, these problems are all interrelated. "A lack of process is contributing to people facing toxicity and harassment in the workplace and not respecting people's time boundaries," she said. "In a physical office, sometimes you can hide. That's not happening online."