Ensuring Equal Opportunities for All
Hybrid is the new pink.
And we’re almost kidding.
Today, it’s everywhere – debates around whether it’s “in” or “out,” whether it’s just a “phase” and “fleeting trend,” or whether it’s truly here to stay.
While the debate rages on, it’s becoming more evident that the hybrid office will be the future of the modern workplace.
Rather than policies leading the way in the workplace transition, the necessities of social distancing have made it so corporate leadership is playing catch-up to the realities of their distributed workforces.
One consideration easily left behind in this rapid policy development is actively and intentionally cultivating equality in the hybrid workplace.
You might ask, “why do we need special hybrid-work equality policies? Isn’t it the same as in-office?”
In fact, this sort of sentiment is exactly the reason why particular attention must be paid to these issues – the vulnerabilities some people face are often hard to see at first, and hybrid work introduces new diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) challenges for certain groups. The last thing we want to do is adopt a “blind” approach whereby everyone is treated “equally,” which only reinforces pre-existing inequalities.
In fact, only 13% of company leaders are thinking about potential disparities between remote and in-office experiences.
The hybrid workplace is the future of the office because of its numerous benefits and advantages. However, hybridity is also inextricably tied to power as it creates power differences between and within teams due to varied access to resources and relationships. These differences not only damage the individual experience but also affect team cohesion, impede collaboration, and ultimately reduce productivity and performance.
So, what to do about it? There must be active intervention on behalf of managers and other leadership members to manage hybridity positioning and hybridity competence which together determine hybrid-driven power dynamics.
Hybridity results on a broader spectrum than entirely in-office or remote work scenarios. Access to resources and visibility are both key sources of power and influence that are significantly determined by one’s position.
The lack of social capital and “water cooler” interactions for remote workers could result in a feeling of isolation for those who are not in the office at the same time or are fully remote. Maintain access to social interactions and keep everyone, remote or hybrid, feeling involved and impactful with their work.
Employees who work in-office have a significant advantage in this regard as they can easily take advantage of the technology and infrastructure offered by the office space and can access information faster. The quality of this information is also typically better for those on-site as it is more current and diverse in scope, providing an edge and an ‘inside scoop’ which ultimately helps them keep up and perform better than those working remotely.
Remote workers are also usually the last to get updates and receive important information as distribution must happen with more effort and intention, which usually pushes it down the priority list or at least necessitates several messengers along the way. These drawbacks can impact one’s ability to perform and display one’s competence.
As experienced by most at this point, the infrastructure standards of remote work are significantly lower than the in-office experience. Certain resources and information may also be simply inaccessible from a remote office space. Access to and quality of resources is already unequally distributed according to race, income, age, ability, residency status, and gender. Hybrid work can emphasize these disparities by relying more upon the resources of individuals rather than the corporation. When work performance is affected by one’s identity and positionally, the workplace is no longer a space of equal opportunity.
Most people would agree that forming and maintaining relationships is easier in-person as opposed to digitally, and this is the case as well for professional relationships. There are more chances of getting to know people through happen-stance interactions, and social support is easier to come by as reaching out and communicating with others can happen more organically and without the feeling of interrupting someone else’s day. Those in-office also have a higher chance of being similar to others who choose to do so as well in regards to lifestyle or personality, reinforcing the camps that could form between remote and on-site workers.
Remote workers are already prone to feelings of isolation, which are only exacerbated by in-office workers being distracted from their digital peers by those in close physical proximity. FOMO is real, however rightful these concerns may be. The lack of organic social support can pose a barrier to those who don’t have stable or pre-existing relationships with coworkers, driving down productivity and self-confidence.
In addition, staying home may be more or less a choice for those with additional accommodation needs or responsibilities. For example, due to the complications of childcare services, compounded with the social expectations of women to be primarily responsible for childcare, women were more likely than men to seek flexible work arrangements even before the pandemic. A recent survey confirms that women are still more likely to opt to stay home.
A hybrid workplace can also exacerbate pre-existing gender inequalities. If women are outnumbered by men in the office, these women may face repercussions as research tells us that stereotypes are more likely to be applied when gender is more noticeable, as it is in workplaces with many men and few women. The lack of women may also alienate the female employees who do choose to return to the physical office.
In addition, being less visible to managers and leadership makes it harder to have one’s hard work and achievements acknowledged, placing remote workers at a distinct disadvantage. This is a prime example of a psychological phenomenon known as proximity bias. Those working in-office will get more indirect feedback, more credit for their work, and have their efforts recognized. Even for collective projects, those that are in-office will receive more attention for the work, while those who are remote will only have more formal channels open for such comments. From a purely psychological perspective, those faces that are passed in the hallway more often become familiarized, which leads to feelings of trust and preference, not to mention being top of mind for new opportunities that arise. Minority groups already suffer from stereotypes, biases, and general underrepresentation in the workplace, and so are much more likely to struggle in the hybrid environment as their voices are further muffled by more complex communication channels that often embolden or amplify the affluent.
It is easy to see how merely working from different locations could have adverse effects on employees indirectly because of the more minute advantages that those working in-office would have.
The ability to manage hybrid work effectively is a skill in and of itself that may require extra training, programs, personal adjustments, and systems.
Not only must employees work effectively remotely or in person, but both – and at the same time, and balance them all the while. For those new to such systems, such as new immigrants or older employees, this transition may be all the more challenging.
Hybrid environments reward employees who think and act adaptably and flexibly, who are able to organize and coordinate across a complex and dynamic environment, and who are able to establish their own integrity when working in a context of low visibility. As mentioned previously, visibility is an even greater barrier for those that are already underrepresented in the office space. In addition, employees who are less effective at building relationships in either in-person or remote environments due to language or cultural differences, time constraints, or ability may find themselves struggling to work with collaborators who do work that way.
Hybrid work is also highly demanding of social acceptance, as relationship building is more challenging to navigate. It also often requires direct communication, more so than face-to-face interactions, as you miss out on a lot of non-verbal social cues. Assertiveness is a key trait to enable the needed communication, one which is loaded with gender inequalities and biases. Men are celebrated for asking for promotions, asking questions, and expressing their demands. Women are less likely to take this direct approach, and when they do, it is often received negatively.
A recent survey found that 45% of female business leaders reported that it is difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings, and one in five women says she has been overlooked or ignored by colleagues in video calls. This evidence suggests it may be even more important for women to be physically present to be heard. Similar effects can be experienced by other minority groups and are particularly salient when one belongs to several of these groups at once.
Hybridity competence is a separate source of power from hybridity positioning, forming a two-part complex of power dynamics. Someone in a disadvantaged position may still be able to work very effectively if they have high hybridity competence, while someone in an advantaged position may still be ineffective if they have low hybridity competence. As a result, it is important that both sides are considered to ensure true equality.
What to do?
While some initiative does need to occur on the part of the employees, managers can also help improve the conditions and make things more equal. While the differences between in-office and remote workers are inevitable, these differences can be managed so they do not end up impacting the experience, productivity, and advantages of individuals.
Making sure you know who is working where and when is a crucial first step to effective management. Having set schedules or asking employees to self-report their location at any given time or day can allow you to track location and so ensure appropriate communication. Providing location information access to other members in a department or team can help keep everyone in the loop and make informed decisions on where it is best to work.
Because of the individualized experience of hybrid work, conversations with each of your team members about the challenges and obstacles they are facing can ensure you are addressing the needs of everyone, and no one is getting left behind. Of course, hybrid work is highly dynamic on an hourly, daily, or weekly basis, so communication channels must be established to facilitate an ongoing exchange of information and concerns.
It is important within these conversations, as well as all other communications that you lead with empathy. Leaders must attempt to understand individual positionalities and avoid judgment as employees make choices about work arrangements in the post-pandemic economy. Employees’ different needs and choices should not result in different career trajectories. Vulnerability tactically gives permission to others to share their experience, so express how you are feeling to set an example.
Creating alternative means of tracking work and productivity is useful to mitigate those proximity biases that develop towards those who work primarily in-office as better workers, as well as other issues of visibility. Subjective feedback needs to be balanced and backed up by objective data. By applying the same measures for everyone and emphasizing the priority that is to be given to these indicators, the playing field can be levelled, and remote workers can receive the feedback, acknowledgement, and opportunities they deserve. This also may require a revaluation of pre-existing policies and procedures to make sure they don’t unintentionally cause disadvantages to one group or another.
Managers can also intervene in order to redistribute power in accordance with the advantages or challenges one faces to make sure that responsibility, recognition or leadership doesn’t passively accumulate particular individuals.
The hybrid workplace allows you to create and monitor key moments of intervention in the case that there is an issue that arises. Below are a few examples of these opportunities:
- Performance reviews: Reviews provide a dedicated space and time to review the employee’s experience, discuss obstacles, and how to move forward.
- Team launches: These events provide a chance for team members to get acquainted and openly discuss as a group the power differences that they experience or anticipate and decide collectively that action needs to be taken.
- Onboarding: The challenges and imbalances brought about by hybrid models need to be explicitly covered and discussed frankly during onboarding sessions to ensure that everyone is aware of the group dynamics and how they are impacted by hybridization. Conscious management is key, especially for new hires.
Many skills that allow for effective hybrid work can be taught, such as how to optimize certain programs, communication channels, and technologies. Other assets such as group cohesion, trust and collaboration can be developed with group activities or seminars.
Many of the issues with hybridity arise from a lack of awareness of the power imbalances it creates. Education on issues related to diversity and the biases that can develop can help employees actively work against these issues for themselves and for others. This training is particularly important for those that have leadership roles or responsibilities. Greater awareness of these vulnerabilities will help employees recognize and work against these pressures by equipping them with tools and giving them the confidence to ask for what they need.
Hybrid or remote work also poses a challenge to professional development. While formal training can pretty easily be replicated in a digital format, informal training that occurs passively in the workplace is harder to come by. Developing creative approaches and solutions to this issue can help keep your workforce motivated and growing, spurring innovation and company success.
The ability to connect outside of a professional context is highly important for effective collaboration on projects and other work-related activities. Spontaneous gatherings and hangouts are a frequent occurrence in the office, which would exclude those who are working remotely.
Establishing activities to encourage workplace connections can help foster these relationships, such as offsites, philanthropy days, town halls and full-company social events. These can be used to rebuild team ties and strengthen corporate culture in an inclusive and accessible way.
In addition, leaving the choice of where to work entirely up to the employee could be disadvantageous both for the company and for the employee. Consider the tasks of each employee and how effectively these things can be done remotely or from the office. Providing guidance to the optimal time that should be spent in the office but providing flexibility as to when and how this is achieved will establish a blend of structure and choice, which is the best way to achieve both parity and happiness among employees.
Furthermore, if choice is controlled and all employees adopt the same schedule, the potential inequity is minimized. In this scenario, everyone has the same flexibility, the same in-person time in the office and the same amount of time working from home. This type of flexibility would likely greatly benefit women with small children and individuals with special accommodation needs as their desires or needs to take care of children does not directly threaten their work performance.
For companies to reap the many benefits of hybrid working, it’s critical that they develop an understanding of hybridity positioning and hybridity competence and take steps to level the playing field for their teams. Hybrid work models are new for almost everyone. For many companies, the details are still hazy. But what is clear is that only those businesses that create a shared experience for their entire workforce and build an inclusive culture can realize the benefits of our new ways of working.