The Zoom Ceiling: A New Barrier Holding Remote Workers Back (and What Leaders Can Do to Stop It)

Remote work has been a saving grace of the pandemic — saving millions of jobs and people’s livelihoods during one of the darkest periods in history.

With offices around the world embracing work from home or hybrid work models, there’s a new barrier, unknowingly, being put in place — the Zoom ceiling.

Coined by industrial-organizational psychologist Elora Voyles, people scientist at TINYpulse, the Zoom ceiling is the new glass ceiling for remote workers. According to Voyles, this new barrier affects all remote workers and determines whether or not an employee will get passed over for promotion compared with their in-person colleagues.

Sure, remote work has made it possible for workers to more easily manage work and family responsibilities, like caring for children or aging parents. However, choosing remote work may have some hidden costs.

Remote workers are passed over for promotions

Remote employees face great challenges when it comes to opportunities for promotions. A study conducted in 2015 by Stanford University found that remote workers are not given the same opportunities for promotion compared with their in-office counterparts. Nicholas Bloom, a lead researcher, stated that promotion rates were “roughly half compared to those in office.”

The old saying “out of sight, out of mind” rings true here. When leaders are considering promotion decisions, visibility and recency bias take hold. They’re just more likely to have those formal and informal conversations with employees who are physically around. It gets even worse when you consider managers’ perceptions of workers who choose remote work over being in the office. Many managers view remote workers as having less “hustle.” In fact, David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, even famously called remote work an “aberration.” It’s hard to imagine executives and managers like Solomon giving the next big promotion to someone working in a way that they disagree with.

Minorities and women prefer remote work

The Zoom ceiling disproportionately affects women and minorities, who are more likely to choose remote work compared to other groups. TINYpulse’s State of Employee Engagement Q3 2021 found that women view returning to work less favorably than men. In fact, the gap between men and women increased in Q3 2021. With women being frequently saddled with home and child care responsibilities, they may suffer from being “out of sight and out of mind.”

The same is true for racial minorities. In one survey from 2020 to 2021, it was found that Black, Asian, and Hispanic respondents all wanted higher flexibility in where they work compared with white respondents. If minority workers are choosing to work from home at a higher rate than their white coworkers, this suggests that they will be impacted by the Zoom ceiling.

What leaders can do

Voyles coined the term Zoom ceiling and offered insights on how to shatter it. She has five main solutions:

  1. Formalize Remote Work Policies: Establish and have clear performance and communication expectations.
  2. Have Frequent 1-on-1 Meetings: Scheduling face-time with employees increases social capital and allows for a healthy feedback loop.
  3. Establish Equality for All Meetings: If the meeting is virtual, then everyone is virtual. If it’s in-person, then everyone is there in person.
  4. Increase Flexibility for All Workers: In-person employees want flexibility too. Let them schedule their day and hours in which they work.
  5. Standardize Performance Evaluation Methods: This process should be equal and fair. In-person employees shouldn’t benefit more than remote ones.

When I asked her how flexibility can be a solution when, in fact, it’s what has contributed to starting the Zoom ceiling, she told me it has to do with perceptions. Remote workers may enjoy more flexibility than in-person workers, or at least that’s what can be inferred. By allowing in-person workers to choose when or how they work, you’re giving back freedom and autonomy — something every worker enjoys. Voyles says that flexibility should be ingrained into company culture so everyone can balance life and work without the negative bias of remote workers being lazy.

Voyles also stressed the importance of one-on-one meetings, stating, “Frequent one-on-one meetings are important for all employees, but they are especially critical for remote workers.” Now, this doesn’t imply that you shouldn’t have them with your in-person employees. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

The first step is for leaders to recognize how this new barrier may be affecting their employees, especially more vulnerable populations. And being aware of how some of their decisions allow the Zoom ceiling to hold their employees back. 

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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