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As companies mark one year since the pandemic began, many are planning for a new future of work: the hybrid workforce. More businesses are opting to create blended teams made up of full-time office workers, people who work remotely all the time, and others who are in the office two to three days a week.
It’s new territory for most, and with no playbook to follow, it raises big questions about how this will work once offices fully reopen. Do you have the right tools for creativity and collaboration? How can you maintain or improve your culture in this split environment? And perhaps most importantly: how can you make sure your hybrid workforce will be inclusive and egalitarian?
Our Remote Work survey found that employees and employers alike prize aspects of virtual work (such as flexibility) as well as the office experience (such as in-person collaboration). Ideally, a hybrid work environment can offer the best of both worlds. But hybrid environments also carry the real risk of bias in favor of those who are physically working on site — and stigmatize those who are working remotely. As physical offices reopen, employees who come back to offices and prioritize in-person interactions could end up having an edge over others who remain working from home, either by choice or circumstances.
It’s a subconscious bias that can lead to managers or other decision makers offering more or better opportunities to the people they see, rather than the employees on the phone or video. That could create an unhealthy “us versus them” culture between people who regularly work in the office and those who work remotely.
How can you avoid remote work inequity? Three mindset shifts can bring you closer to an inclusive hybrid workplace.
Lead your hybrid workforce with empathy: Recent political events in our country have underscored the importance of inclusive leadership. We’re seeing companies step up to bridge social divides through new workplace initiatives, such as more D&I training and creating safe spaces for difficult conversations. Leaders must also show empathy and avoid judgment as employees make choices about work arrangements in the post-pandemic economy.
Try to avoid assumptions or making blanket statements about those choices, such as “I know we’re all excited to get back to the office.” Instead, be open about your own experience and encourage others to share their experience. For example, if you’re feeling cooped up while working from home and decide to take a walk while holding a meeting, share that with the team so they know it’s okay to do the same thing. Vulnerability tactically gives permission to others to share their experience.
Some of these employees will likely continue to have family or health needs that would keep them at home more than others, while others will likely be eager to get back to old office routines. For example, parents with children who are attending school remotely may not be able to go back to the office, even for a few days a week, until schools regularly resume in-person learning. Their different needs and choices should not result in different career trajectories.
Business travel raises another important point about empathy. Even once business travel picks up again, there will be people who are unwilling or uncomfortable traveling to client or internal meetings, which could lead to those people getting fewer opportunities. Watch out for bias creeping in and make sure that even those who don’t travel don’t end up missing out.
Get creative about how people interact: The pandemic has taught us new ways to connect and communicate and opened the door for widespread use of new technologies in the office, like virtual reality. For example, one major tech company, which will shift to a hybrid model later this year, is allowing some employees, such as new hires and their managers, to meet outdoors with social distancing.
Technology companies are moving at a pace others may not be comfortable with. But with so many creative options available, there is no good reason to go back to rigid models when offices reopen. In particular, pay attention to the nature of hybrid working sessions where some people are in a conference room and others are virtual—this will require using different meeting etiquette, as it’s all too easy to overlook people who are not present. Rectify this through common tools, like online brainstorming tools, or by investing in more sophisticated tools. Virtual Reality headsets, for instance, let you hold meetings and conferences in 3D to engage both employees and customers, regardless of whether they’re physically in the room with you or not.
Since this is new territory for so many workplaces, you may find it helpful to establish new meeting etiquette. For example, teach meeting leaders to call on people who haven’t had a chance to speak up so team members who are remote don’t feel overshadowed or forgotten by employees who are together in a conference room. Because hybrid work is very different for so many people, employees may appreciate guidance even for very tactical things, like when to use verbal communications versus a chat function.
Take the pulse of your people continually: As companies transition to a hybrid environment, it will be important to track and analyze employee sentiment data to surface perception gaps and identify what employees need. Ask your people about their individual experiences as hybrid work progresses and use this information to take action. Don’t assume you have this information already. For example, our research found that 81% of executives say their company has been successful in extending benefits for childcare during WFH, but only 45% of employees say the same. And our January Workforce Pulse survey found that many employees say they’re struggling with an inability to disconnect, a skewed work-life balance and a growing overall workload.
While data is critical, leaders should also actually talk with people one on one or hold focus groups to better understand employee pain points. Crowdsourcing tools can also be helpful, encouraging people to discuss and share their experiences. It’s especially important to recognize the safety concerns many employees have about the virus and how that may affect their views on returning to the workforce.
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.