Is hybrid working hampering inclusion?
By Jo Faragher on 6 October 2022
Since the pandemic, hybrid working has become the accepted way of working for many organisations. What started as a necessity to work from home during lockdowns evolved into a tentative return to the office, and many businesses have now settled on a new routine. But as these new arrangements bed in, however, have they really been set out with inclusion in mind?
“Often this way of working has developed through necessity which means many companies have not had the opportunity to really think through how to make hybrid working as inclusive as possible,” says Dr Holly Birkett, senior lecturer in organisational studies at the University of Birmingham Business School. “Hybrid working if not developed thoughtfully can potentially hamper inclusion. For example, working from home can be much more difficult for younger people or those renting who don’t have access to suitable working space at home.”
Companies also make a number of assumptions that allowing people to mix up their week between the office and home actually benefits groups such as parents or carers. Dr Birkett adds: “Hybrid working is not always better for parents. If it is not set up as a norm and properly resourced and integrated into processes and systems such as performance management and promotions, then it has the potential to hamper working parents careers.” Similarly, employees could be under pressure to create workspaces at home that are not conducive to what they’re doing, which in turn can impact work-life balance.
Asking employees what works for them, rather than making assumptions, is a good first step. “Ask and genuinely listen to your teams to understand what they need,” says Stephen Frost, CEO of D&I consultancy Included. “There are likely to be a range of different requirements across your organisations and it’s important to offer a solution that isn’t ‘one size fits all’. There may be colleagues who struggle to commute and would like to rarely be in the office, and there may be some whose living situation makes it difficult to work from home so would like to be in five days a week.”
Gary Cookson, author of HR for Hybrid Working, agrees that while enabling people to work remotely can support inclusion, “having a rigid ‘one size fits all’ approach is unlikely to help”. Instead, managers should try where possible to cater to individual circumstances. Some examples of this include removing the requirement of a daily commute for those with caring responsibilities or allowing them to work ‘asynchronously’ (as in responding to tasks when they can); recruiting for wholly remote roles to increase the available talent pool and reach a wider geographical base; and giving employees with disabilities more control over their home workspaces and schedules by giving them access to support. “Organisations need to take their responsibilities for ensuring an effective remote working environment carefully, and an individual and sensitive approach to dealing with this is recommended,” he adds.
Trust and openness
Organisations with high levels of trust tend to be the ones seeing greatest success with hybrid working, according to Toby Mildon, a diversity and inclusion architect. “Undoubtedly, business leaders are having to adapt management and collaboration techniques to new ways of working. Trusting people to get on with their work and acknowledging output rather than time spent at a desk is key,” he says. “It’s about empowering people to work where they want to and how they want to – and overcoming our experience bias (taking our perceptions to be the objective truth and challenging the status quo) and distance bias (a preference for what is closer than faraway) when making decisions affecting team inclusion.”
To do this, organisations need to recognise that people work in different ways and adapt to individuals’ strengths so they can thrive, he adds. Not doing so could risk attrition at a time when the labour market is tight. “Ultimately, if hybrid working isn’t offered as an option, good people will leave in search of more flexible employment conditions that suit them better,” says Mildon. “On the flip side, businesses shouldn’t assume that all staff want to work remotely. Some people might crave social connections, others might be in a difficult domestic environment and value time spent in the workplace. Creating an environment of trust and openness is key to understanding the individual preferences of employees and to flexing working patterns accordingly.”
Role of line managers
Managers play a central role in building this environment of trust. Rather than make assumptions or require all employees to be in a particular place at a particular time, they can use data to see which working patterns might suit different individuals or groups, Cookson suggests. “For example, many will have access to data showing who has taken special leave, who has left, who was furloughed, who had been promoted, recognised and rewarded, and this data may tell a story about how remote and hybrid working is affecting particular groups,” he says. In turn, it may be useful for line managers to keep informal records of when they engage with team members, particularly if they are remote, as well as records of how tasks and rewards are distributed across a hybrid workforce, “to show whether remote or hybrid workers are being consciously or subconsciously excluded”.
Simple adjustments can ensure managers do not inadvertently favour those who are “present” in the office, he adds. “If face to face events and meetings are to take place, help managers to schedule them at times that are less likely to impact individual caring responsibilities, and at inclusive locations also,” he advises. “Educate line managers to avoid prioritising employees who are face to face with them, and to keep group events virtual. Provide them with technological solutions that allow team members to work asynchronously when appropriate and aid collaboration by standardising the way teams work across remote and hybrid environments.”
Sense of belonging
Employees’ sense of belonging in the business is an important area that can be overlooked when crafting hybrid policies, believes Paul Modley, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at recruitment specialist AMS. “Many of the DE&I efforts we see work well and demonstrate that the culture of the business matches the needs of diverse communities. In essence, people feel they belong,” he explains. “Achieving this in a hybrid working style is going to be difficult as it’s much easier to convey culture in a physical environment. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible in a remote landscape, though.”
Technology can play a crucial part in this, but in partnership with a more inclusive and flexible approach overall rather than in isolation. “Employers do also need to consider what special attention may need to be afforded to remote workers to enable them to feel part of the company culture when their peers may be together without them,” adds Modley. This can’t happen without honest conversations with employees, he concludes. “Your people need to be able to talk about what they need from the business, otherwise they won’t get that sense of belonging that will really drive true inclusion. Employers really need to push themselves out of their comfort zone, so if you feel nervous about what your staff might be telling you, you’re on the right path to start driving change.”
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