When we one day leave the pandemic behind us, hybrid working environments are likely to be a lasting part of its legacy. As such, it is becoming imperative for enterprises to look at how they will ensure workplace inclusivity and fairness for all—whether they are working remotely, from the office or some mix of the two.

An article on CBS News highlights how hybrid work could create a new “subcaste of employees” among those who choose to continue doing their jobs mostly from home. It quotes Dan Wang, an associate professor of business and sociology at Columbia Business School, as saying that remote workers could be treated as second-class members of an organisation.

As Sid Sijbrandij of GitHub writes for Wired: “Most leadership in hybrid-remote firms will keep working from the head office, degrading the default way of working from “remote-first” to “remote-allowed,” where remote employees are not penalised for working outside the office, but are also not proactively integrated into the fabric of the company.”

There is a real danger that people who mostly work outside the office will be left out of opportunities to advocate for themselves, build their network of contacts and ultimately advance their careers. CBS News cites UK research showing that employees who worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted compared to all other employees—and 38% less likely to receive bonuses.

Yet these challenges can be managed through empathetic leadership and sound policies and processes. Here is some advice from the experts:

  1. Include remote workers in company events when possible 

Beyond the pandemic, it will be important for companies with hybrid models to create opportunities for frequent face-to-face contact between remote employees and their office-bound leaders and colleagues. Advises a blog post from Compaas: “Company leaders should be intentional about planning in-person team building events (once COVID ceases to be a threat), even if they’re optional to attend.”

  1. Be aware that cliques may form 

In The Anywhere Operating SystemLuke Thomas, founder of Friday, writes that cliques can quickly form in companies with a hybrid model. Employees who meet face to face every day inevitably form closer relationships with each other than with others who are an image on the screen or who they see only every few days or even weeks. Companies need to be deliberate and decisive about culture to prevent an “us and them” dynamic from emerging.

Thomas writes: “At a company for which I used to work, employees were given flexibility around when they could go into the office. One group would visit a couple days every week. Relationships strengthened for this team at the expense of their co-workers. Other people would show up to the office and were not invited to lunch. In short, this team acted like it was the only one in the office, which caused tension.”

  1. Support multiple channels of communication 

One of the challenges of hybrid work is that people who work remotely sometimes get left out of important meetings or can’t make their voices heard when there is a mix of office-bound and remote team members in a meeting. McKinsey suggests using chat in meetings to lower barriers to speaking and be more inclusive.

A blog post from Atlassian, maker of the Jira and Trello software, recommends using asynchronous collaboration tools to allow people to share ideas, mull them over and iterate on them, rather than depending on real-time meetings alone. This gives everyone a turn, even if they are wary of interjecting when a senior colleague dominates the meeting.

  1. Tailor performance management systems to the hybrid environment 

To make a hybrid model work well and ensure fair outcomes, HR teams and managers will need to focus on creating performance metrics that are not biased towards either remote or office workers. This is an ideal time to start moving towards outcomes-based measures that reward and recognise teams and individuals for their tangible contributions to company success. Read our earlier blog post for more insight.

  1. Ensure team managers and leaders make time for one-on-one catch-ups

A blog post from international recruiter, Hays, stresses the importance of managers’ roles in keeping remote employees connected to and included in the company. The author writes: “Do not skip your regular one-on-one meeting with your remote employees. These meetings give you a chance to check in to see how they are. For your staff, they can be an essential lifeline to you and the workplace.”

  1. Keep your finger on the pulse 

Business leaders and managers should keep an eye on how teams and people are progressing to ensure that no one is getting left behind. They should continuously monitor whose career is advancing, who is taking advantage of training opportunities, who is putting in the hours, and who is delivering results to make sure that no one is falling behind or being taken advantage of or excluded.

  1. Drive inclusion through deliberate policy choices 

Luke Thomas notes that managing a hybrid environment demands firm, decisive leadership and clear policy direction. “You will still need to create high-level policies, coordinate desks, and a lot more. In fact, you will need to do more coordination than if you made a decision to go fully remote or 100% back to the office,” he writes.

Hybrid models—difficult, but worthwhile for many businesses

Businesses are generally learning that running a hybrid model is more complex than choosing between a pure remote or office working model. However, a hybrid model done right could enable a company to become more agile and to give employees more choice and freedom. Hybrid can be a messy compromise, but it can also deliver the best of both worlds if thoughtfully implemented.

References:

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/hybrid-return-to-office-models-could-create-subcaste-of-workers/

https://www.wired.com/story/hybrid-remote-work-offers-the-worst-of-both-worlds/

https://www.compa.as/blog/remote-inclusion-hybrid-workforce-model

https://zapier.com/blog/hybrid-work-model/

https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/the-organization-blog/reimagining-the-virtual-workplace-around-inclusion-and-engagement

https://www.atlassian.com/blog/leadership/hybrid-work-model-premortem

https://www.tarsus.co.za/rethinking-performance-measurement-in-a-world-of-remote-work-2/

https://www.hays.com.au/blog/insights/7-ways-to-manage-a-hybrid-team-in-an-inclusive-way

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