Fostering Inclusion in Hybrid Workplaces

The current hybrid workplace model is a result of reactively, rapidly assembled remote workplaces now slowly coming back into the office. That’s not the same as designing an intentional hybrid workplace. Now leaders must ask how to optimize the hybrid workplace to best create cultures of inclusion and performance.

It's been over two years since the start of the pandemic, and the debate between the remote workplace and the office workplace is obsolete. The hybrid workplace is the new workplace. It’s what people want, especially underrepresented groups. So, how do employers navigate the creation of an inclusive culture when people are moving between on-site and remote work? 

The Present, and Future, is Hybrid

Long before the world as we knew it came to a great pause, more flexibility has been sought by people wishing to better navigate their work-life intersection. The pandemic pulled the rug out from under the myth that spending hours in the physical office is the key to productivity and that remote work would mean being disconnected.

The Future Forum Pulse survey of over 10,700 knowledge workers across the US, Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the UK found in late 2021 that 58% of knowledge workers had moved to hybrid workplace arrangements and 68% prefer it.  People now expect flexibility in where they work (78%) and when they work (95%). 72% who were not satisfied with the flexibility at work were looking elsewhere.

McKinsey research found that more than 3/4 people prefer a hybrid workplace and that 4/5 people who work in hybrid models over the last two years want to keep those arrangements. Over 2/3 of those hybrid-preferring employees would look elsewhere if asked to return full-time.

A critical finding related to diversity, equity and inclusion is that the desire for hybrid workplaces is even greater among underrepresented groups. 

Globally, women knowledge workers (52%) are more likely to opt for primarily remote work relative to men (46%). In the US, while 75% of white knowledge workers want hybrid or fully remote work, that increases among Hispanic/Latinx (86%), Asian-American (81%) and black (81%) employees. Women, working mothers and women of color are more likely, overall, to opt into flexible work arrangements.

Similarly, while 71% of hybrid-preferring employees said they would look for other jobs if they couldn’t stay hybrid, McKinsey found that the likelihood to leave was even higher for younger employees (18-34 year-olds were 59% higher than 55-64 year-olds), black employees (14% higher than white peers), LGBQ+ (24% higher than heterosexual peers), women (10% more than men), non-binary people (18% more than men and women) and those with disabilities (14% more than those without disabilities).

Amidst the widespread resignation of employees, employers must re-envision hybrid workplaces that will engage and retain diverse talent.

The Implications of Switching to a Hybrid Working Model

The current hybrid workplace model is a result of reactively, rapidly assembled remote workplaces now slowly coming back into the office. That’s not the same as designing an intentional hybrid workplace. Leaders should now ask how to optimize the hybrid workplace to best create cultures of inclusion and performance.

Despite challenges and bias in the remote workplace, when it comes to practices core to inclusion, McKinsey found that nearly 4x as many employees felt “work-life support” and “mutual respect" had improved rather than worsened, and even “team-building” was more likely to have improved rather than worsened. Future Forum found hybrid and remote knowledge employees rate their sense of work-life balance, productivity, flexibility, belonging at work, access to resources, ability to focus and satisfaction higher than full-time office peers.

And yet, the challenges of creating inclusion in a hybrid working model are not small: More physical distance and fewer in-person interactions and check-ins can create psychological distance and lead to misunderstandings. Onboarding new hires into the culture and creating belonging needs to be intentional. Nurturing psychological safety, cohesion and dynamic collaboration among teams requires innovative approaches. Building mutually respectful relationships is more important than ever when remote working may lead to more interpersonal conflict. Split work contexts could amplify in-group and out-group dynamics. Inequalities in home workspaces create different working environments that can impact relative productivity. There’s also the perceived correlation between visibility and productivity, and how that relates to promotion.

Specifically, Future Forum found that while women, working mothers and women of color are spending the least time back in the office, white knowledge workers are spending up to 17% more time in the office than others. Executives are much more likely to be working in the office 3-4 days a week compared to non-executives. 41% of executives are raising concern about the potential for “proximity bias” that could exacerbate existing inequities between co-located on-site employees and remote employees. Proximity to managers has been correlated to increased promotion rates, which could work against diversity and inclusion. 

Practical Advice for Building Inclusion in a Hybrid Context

In a way, conversations about inclusion are now implicitly set in the context of a hybrid workplace. This highlights the need to deepen focus on DEI efforts to create engagement and retention.

Employees, increasingly looking to be purpose-aligned, want to feel engaged at work while simultaneously seen as people with lives outside of work. They want to feel they belong and are valued in their authenticity and have the opportunity to fulfill their potential. And they want to feel appreciated as part of the greater whole of your organization.

Here are some practical ways to create inclusion in a hybrid workplace: 

  • Collect feedback on employee needs, preferences, expectations and experiences to regularly understand what is fostering inclusion - and what practices are inhibiting it. Within a hybrid workplace, tracking employee experiences and collecting DEI data become more relevant than ever to reveal patterns. 

  • Broaden flexibility to allow different schedules/locations to meet employees' different personal needs and preferences. Flexibility cannot be a cookie cutter approach, because it requires that employees can flex work according to the needs of their own families and lives. Boundaries are necessary too, to avoid burnout.  

  • Create recruiting and onboarding practices that ensure quality and consistency in bringing new people into the culture -  such as creating onboarding videos, organizing shared and regular experiences combining new joiners, and pairing new employees with an experienced mentor for day-to-day informal questions. 

  • Encourage leaders and managers to signal accessibility whether in the office space or remote location, whether an open door or a status update that communicates available. Regular check-ins with employees on their lives, especially those who are working more remotely, will help foster wellbeing and manage stress.

  • Encourage managers and leaders to model the hybrid workplace when it comes to location and schedule flexibility. This allows others to feel more safe in accessing these benefits without penalties and offsets the likelihood of double standards and proximity bias. Executives need to be models, too.

  • Encourage over-communication rather than under-communication within teams and departments to avoid misunderstandings and projections. Ensure information dispersion through teams and various channels, leveraging cross-team ties that break up in-group and out-group silos and information flows.

  • Build trust through transparency. Share data on the patterns of promotions. Track data to know if the trend of those who are and are not getting promoted is directly affected by choices in the hybrid workplace. Be vocal in recognizing achievements and contributions of all employees to make the work of everyone visible. 

  • Build equity in team collaboration so that all employees have equal access to the tools and information they need to work together and be effective. Create meeting practices that solicit the input of those in and out of the room. Use interactive tools to bridge locations, and schedule meetings for accessibility.

  • Develop a coaching and growth mindset among managers. Promote the stewardship of a learning atmosphere. Encourage familiarity with how others prefer to work and communicate, to help bridge the gap and reduce pressure to “appear” productive or be available 24/7, leading to burnout. 

  • Create community in diverse ways. Leverage infrastructure and groups (such as ERGs) that help employees to support each other to create more community within the larger organization. Create “office hours”, like Google, that are facilitated by peers for 1:1 interactions in supporting others. Schedule occasional team building events, whether virtual or in-person, that bring everyone together.

  • Transform office spaces to create both flexibility for individual needs and opportunities for better connection and collaboration when space is being shared-on site. As Google has explored, creating more green spaces and welcoming environments can help energize employees within the space. 

The hybrid workplace has put us on the path to a more inclusive working model. The next step is making sure to prioritize the value of inclusion as organizations develop it.

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