The Hybrid Work Model: A New Challenge For Diversity, Equity And Inclusion
1 July 2021
Employees at companies across the country are thrilled at the prospect of a more flexible future as hybrid work models gain traction. But the hybrid workplace is creating a new diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) challenge as different and potentially unequal categories emerge among employees: those who are in the office and those who are remote.
While equity on the basis of race, gender and other protected classes is a key component of DE&I, the discipline is actually broader: It’s about creating an even playing field for reward and advancement regardless of variables. Currently, companies are most focused on the day-to-day logistical challenges of balancing remote and in-person teams. But we can’t overlook the bigger issue of ensuring a level playing field. This starts with acknowledging and addressing the biases managers may hold toward in-person and remote work.
Are Employees Who Work From Home Less Productive?
The answer, of course, is no — we can’t label a broad group of people unproductive based on a single trait. (And research indicates remote employees are just as productive, if not more so, than their in-office counterparts.) This is a prime example of proximity bias, a psychological phenomenon of falsely assuming people are more productive when they’re in the office close to their managers.
Leaders like myself aren’t immune to these biases. My personal preference is to get dressed and come to the office every day. Instinctively, I perceive a person choosing to be in the office as more motivated to learn from peers, more extroverted and more ambitious, even though I know this perception is entirely false.
Prior to the pandemic, HR professionals were just beginning to explore proximity bias concerns. With the majority of the workforce still in the office — just 3% worked remotely full-time — this felt like a far-off problem. Now, as companies consider their return-to-office plans, that problem has arrived.
Some companies are eliminating the problem by landing at an extreme. Big names like Dropbox, Facebook and Salesforce have announced plans for permanent, remote-first work environments for many employees. Other companies, like Amazon, are planning for a full return, citing the need for in-person connection to invent, collaborate and learn together most effectively.
Many companies, however, are splitting the difference with a hybrid option, allowing employees to come into the office several days per week for the foreseeable future. Yet only 13% of company leaders are thinking about potential disparities between remote and in-office experiences, according to Gartner. That’s concerning, since it’s critical to address biases and implement policies that promote equity now before inequities develop and become entrenched.
Advancing Equity In The Hybrid Workplace: Five Things To Consider
If your business is considering a hybrid workplace, keep the following in mind:
1. Informal training and development: Younger employees are more likely to prefer remote work, and they’re also the ones more likely to face long-term advancement challenges. Formal training is simple to execute remotely but the ad hoc learning opportunities created in the office are difficult to replicate virtually. As an executive recruiter, listening to more senior recruiters on calls was one of the most important ways I learned. In a single year, the impact on the development of junior employees may not be obvious but the companies who don’t creatively address the problem are likely to see disappointing professional growth among those in the office less frequently relative to their peers over the longer term.
2. Evaluation and assessment: While companies have a wide range of systems for evaluating performance, nearly all rely heavily on peer and manager feedback, which are vulnerable to partiality like proximity bias. Subjective feedback needs to be balanced with objective data. In sales-based businesses like mine, key performance indicators (KPIs) are straightforward, which makes it relatively easy to quantify success. Companies without obvious metrics may need to create new assessment methods less vulnerable to bias. As a bonus, these efforts simultaneously address other forms of bias including preferential treatment on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation among others.
3. Culture integration: As employees return to the office and in-person mingling returns, those working remotely miss out on spontaneous moments of connection and may become further isolated from their peers. This may hurt their ability to effectively collaborate as they miss opportunities to contribute informally and weakens the bonds that aid in employee retention. Offsites, philanthropy days, town halls and full-company social events are all tools companies can use to rebuild team ties and strengthen cultural connection.
4. Balancing choice with parity: Left to make their own decisions, some employees will choose to be in the office full-time, others entirely remote. That may work in some unique corporate cultures, but for the rest, such inequity is a recipe for disaster. Consider what types of work are best done in the office and what types of face-time various types of employees need to continue growing, excelling and advancing. A blend of structure and choice is the best way to achieve both parity and happiness among employees.
5. Monitoring advancement: Advancement will be the measure of whether the hybrid workplace has opened up an achievement gap. But if you wait a year to audit advancement in relation to remote work schedules, it may be too late. Employees will have made long-term lifestyle adjustments to accommodate their new schedules, and it may be difficult to reverse course. Stay on the pulse of whether things are moving in the right or wrong direction by developing methodologies now that will assess performance at frequent intervals. Adjust your hybrid models accordingly before committing to long-term policies.
As we move forward into a new era of work, company leaders must think about DE&I in the broadest sense, including potential inequity between those who are in the office and those who are remote. By integrating this consideration as they develop hybrid work models, leaders can ensure equal development and advancement opportunities for all employees.
Article Published By: Forbes, “The Hybrid Work Model: A New Challenge For Diversity, Equity And Inclusion“