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The rise of the hybrid workplace has arrived. While some employees are ready to return to the office, others are determined to stay fully remote. You as an executive, CEO or member of the leadership team may be wondering: How do we bridge the gap between those who want to return to the office and those who wish to stay remote?
The answer is not black or white. There are good reasons why a hybrid work model could accelerate your diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals – while also creating more challenges. As a decision-maker, you’re tasked with finding a happy medium and thinking through the following questions.
- Who on the team might have greater challenges to overcome in a hybrid workplace, and what can we do to support them?
- How can we bridge the gaps in access and actively accommodate team members with different needs around remote work?
- How can we stay connected and cohesive as an organization while still honoring peoples’ preferred work situations?
While the challenges of hybrid and remote models will continue to be flushed out in the coming years, it’s a good idea to start thinking about how to infuse DEI into your new work model.
In this article, we will explore how hybrid work can eliminate bias in the workplace. We’ll also look at the challenges which may arise in your transition. I’ll also offer several tips to help your organization build a more inclusive workplace for all employees, not just those in the office.
Related: What’s the Future of Work? A Hybrid Workforce
Positives of remote and hybrid work
Remote and hybrid work can eliminate bias.
One of the advantages of remote and hybrid work is its ability to give workers the flexibility and balance they need to succeed in the workplace. While so many groups still experience discrimination and bias based on their race, gender, nationality and ability, switching to a hybrid or remote model may make the workplace feel safer and more accessible for some.
Remote work can help break down location barriers.
For companies who are open to a global workforce, remote work removes the location barriers that have long barred international talent. This gives organizations the freedom to recruit diverse workers from around the globe. In addition, employees have the flexibility to choose where they want to work by factoring in the cost of living, cultural preferences and proximity to friends and family.
Remote work can help close the gender gap.
For many individuals, gender has either been an advantage or disadvantage in the workplace. Remote work can offer better opportunities and a greater work-life balance for women – especially those who are working mothers that need the flexibility to pursue their professional careers while balancing their family obligations.
Remote work can make it easier for workers with disabilities.
The accessibility needs of people with disabilities can often be under the spotlight or left in the dark. In terms of hiring, in-person work can make some people with disabilities pass on an opportunity that they’re qualified for because of challenges related to commuting and accessibility. Working remotely allows employees to work in an atmosphere customized to their needs. This gives people with disabilities the opportunity to work in a more comfortable and accessible space – which could be their home.
Remote work can help eliminate visual bias in the workplace.
The big benefit of remote work is that people can turn off their cameras on the video call and eliminate the visual bias that often lurks in workplaces. Visual bias is the assumptions and judgments that come from someone’s physical appearance, such as their skin color, hairstyle, fashion, tattoos, etc. Visual bias can make it challenging for some people to advance in their careers. Remote work can alleviate visual bias, especially for racial, ethnic and gender minorities.
Related: Here’s How to Foster Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in a Remote-Work World
Challenges with remote and hybrid work
Hybrid work may exacerbate inequity.
On the contrary, remote and hybrid work may cause larger gaps in diversity, equity and inclusion in an organization. In-office workers may have more opportunities for connection and advancement while remote workers may be out of sight and out of mind.
Unequal access to leadership and the absence of workers physically in the office can make the workplace feel less diverse, inclusive and inherently unequal.
Hybrid work can cause unequal access to leadership.
Those working in the office may have more opportunities to interact with leadership in person than their remote counterparts. This may cause rifts between remote workers and leadership. It’s no mystery that having facetime with decision-makers is crucial for career growth. In-office employees can more easily develop rapport with leadership while those working remotely will have to find more clever ways to achieve the same end.
Employees may favor in-office employees.
As mentioned, those who show their face in the office may have more career opportunities in the long run. They may have more opportunities to build in-person relationships, which can lead to advancement preferences that disadvantage remote workers.
There’s also proximity bias. Proximity bias is the tendency for people in positions of authority to show favoritism or give preferential treatment to employees who are closest to them physically. This type of bias allows managers to make decisions about performance, promotions and hiring based upon familiarity rather than objective criteria.
Some common examples include:
- Evaluating the work of onsite employees more highly than remote employees regardless of objective performance metrics.
- Offering the most interesting projects, assignments, or development opportunities to onsite employees.
- Excluding remote employees from important meetings or not encouraging them to speak up on group calls for fear of technical issues or communication gaps.
Related: Why Proximity Bias Keeps Leaders From Excelling in the Era of Hybrid and Remote Work
Hybrid workplaces can create less diverse office spaces.
Many folks who are racial, gender or ability minorities may choose to stay remote. This can impact the diversity of the office’s in-person staff and set back some DEI goals and initiatives.
The truth is that many underrepresented groups still experience microaggressions in the workplace. There are several reasons why a person from an underrepresented group may choose to avoid returning to the office.
Employees who identify as non-binary can more easily display pronouns on their Zoom screen than correct colleagues face-to-face. A nursing mother can avoid being asked how long she plans to breastfeed when taking a moment to pump. People with disabilities can avoid unnecessary offers of assistance while working from the comfort and safety of their homes.
All of these scenarios and more may cause some groups to choose remote over in-person work – which creates a less-diverse office space.
How to strengthen DEI in a hybrid workplace
Weighing the benefits and challenges of hybrid work on your DEI initiatives is important. Here are a few tips that can encourage a more inclusive and welcoming workplace – even if it’s dispersed.
Demonstrate vulnerability and empathy.
It’s easy to hide behind a screen and offer little empathy or vulnerability in a video call. However, I recommend making a concerted effort to get to know team members on a personal level.
Ask open-ended questions on topics that they care about and make a connection with them – even if the interaction is online. Empathy and vulnerability can be felt from screen to screen, office room to office room, and it pays dividends. Employees will feel more connected and understood which will likely increase employee happiness and rapport.
Ask about people’s needs, acknowledge them, and tailor your actions accordingly.
Encourage employees and executive staff to allocate time each week (whether in-person or virtual) toward completing a physical, emotional and intellectual check-in. Be sure to listen to your fellow employees’ needs and tailor your actions to support them.
Establish direct communication with coworkers who may feel like minorities and see how they are doing. Make a point to draw them into discussions. Be brave and address the “elephant in the room” by acknowledging difficult situations, asking questions and creating space for people to share openly how they feel and what they need.
Challenge personal assumptions and seek to understand people’s experiences.
Even though you may be separated by a screen or have a mixed remote meeting, do not forget to leave assumptions at the door. Seek to understand why your remote coworker may need to keep their camera off. Ask questions before assuming someone’s reasoning or rationale. Acknowledge what you do not know and express a desire to learn more. This involves creating psychological safety for diverse perspectives and encouraging more participation – even from remote workers.
Make time for structured team building and networking.
Set up occasional remote or in-person sessions dedicated to building bonds between team members. This is an intentional time where you can develop exercises and activities that encourage connection. This is important because the in-person interactions are limited with hybrid work. Scheduling intentional time to ensure all workers – remote and in-person – can feel connected and bonded is important to the development of your company culture.
Be intentional about mentoring and developing all team members.
Mentoring can be tricky with remote workers. Some team members will have access to outstanding mentorship while others will not. Make it a mission in your organization to schedule regular one-on-one check-ins to discuss how individual team members are doing professionally.
Topics can include assessing their goals, interests and exploring their professional development intentions. Do your best to increase transparency around opportunities within the company without proximity bias.
Related: Hire Like a Diversity Expert: 5 Key Qualities of Inclusive Employees
Hybrid and remote work can be diverse, equitable and inclusive – if done with intention
If your organization is moving towards a hybrid or fully remote model, don’t fret. There are plenty of ways to make your organization feel equitable and inclusive for all team members. It takes intentional actions to be vulnerable, thoughtful, considerate and compassionate towards all workers regardless of their location or status.
It also takes intention to create equity so that no members get forgotten when opportunities and promotions arise in the organization. Creating a hybrid work model that works for everyone will reflect the creativity and intention you put behind it.
The future for full and mixed remote work is here. Be sure to keep DEI at the forefront.