How will a hybrid workplace impact inclusion and belonging?

As Indeed’s Global Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging (DI&B), it’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as many companies, including Indeed, move toward hybrid work environments — also known as flex or dynamic workplaces.

In a recent survey, 45% of U.S. executives say their organizations will adopt a hybrid work model during 2021’s second half. Their reasons, in order of priority, include employee health and well-being; employee productivity; access to a wider talent pool; aligning their workforce plans with their missions; and diversity, equity and inclusion.

And yet, the hybrid workplace poses potential challenges to your DI&B efforts. I agree with McKinsey & Company when they caution that “flexible working models do not automatically drive inclusion or employee engagement. In fact, they can undermine those goals if not deliberately and thoughtfully addressed.”

Admittedly, the hybrid model is still a work in progress for many companies, including Indeed. That said, here are some things leaders might consider to proactively mitigate risks to their DI&B initiatives in a hybrid work environment.

Get started ASAP

Moving to a hybrid workplace is a significant cross-functional change-management initiative. I recommend making DI&B a top priority from the beginning or, if you’ve already launched your hybrid workplace, as soon as possible. 

Delaying implementation will invite the very behaviors we are looking to change when employees return to offices. 

Establishing a DI&B objective as part of the workforce transformation initiative will ensure that creating an inclusive environment is not an element that is put off for later.

Study the demographics

With a hybrid work model, a company might give most employees the option to work full-time in office, remote or a mix of both. 

Look closely at the demographic data behind your employees’ selections. What you discover can help you develop the most effective DI&B strategies in this new environment.

For example, a March survey finds that 97% of Black employees in the U.S. currently working remotely want a full-time hybrid or remote option. 

This makes sense to me because many of these employees, while working from home, have not had to regularly code switch (adapt their behavior or appearance to better “fit in”) or face microaggressions (subtle but offensive behaviors directed at members of marginalized groups) as they did in the office.

Women, especially working mothers or primary caregivers, are another group that may lean more toward remote or flex work. 

Indeed research finds that 74% of full-time working women say remote work helps them perform their jobs better. Another survey, by the Conference Board, reveals that more U.S. women (50%) than men (33%) question the wisdom of returning to the workplace.

And so, when developing a hybrid workplace, consider the demographic composition of who’s opted to work remotely or flex full-time:

* What percentage of these employees are from underrepresented groups?

* How do those percentages affect the race, gender and other demographic breakdowns of your workforce in the office? For instance, if 70% of men but only 30% of women want to work in the office, your hybrid model could be inadvertently creating a gender imbalance in the physical workspace.

* Based on that data, what changes should be made to account for the imbalances? I’ve got some suggestions below.

Watch out for proximity bias

Research shows that flexible remote policies can improve overall employee productivity, among other benefits. 

And yet, proximity bias — the assumption that employees who are physically present in the office are by default more productive, collaborative and committed than remote workers — is an ongoing concern.

Rather than trying to persuade those with proximity bias that they’re wrong, it’s more effective to help them see another perspective. For instance, some employees may have opted to be remote because they’d rather spend time working versus commuting. 

In other words, focus on the barriers these workers are trying to eliminate by choosing remote or flex work and how their choice might help them be the best employees they can be.

Communicate opportunities in a transparent manner

Then there are the organic interactions that happen outside of scheduled meetings. 

These exchanges — at the water cooler, in hallways or even at a bar after hours — can lead to new opportunities and collaborations. But while they can help create or deepen a sense of inclusion and belonging for those in the office, they have the opposite effect for those who are not physically present. 

Because flex and remote employees are at a disadvantage in this regard, leaders will need to be intentional and deliberate in making sure all currently available and future opportunities are widely communicated to make it equitable and fair for everyone. 

Rethink team meetings

Another change you might consider making is how team meetings are handled. 

The best team meetings are productive and help foster inclusion and belonging among team members. But that’s a problem when a team consists of in-office, remote and flex employees. 

How do you prevent those who aren’t in the same room from feeling excluded?

Here’s something you could try: Consider making it a practice that no meetings in which all team members are expected to participate should be held in person unless all members can be physically present. If not, then each member could join the meeting from a separate location via video or phone, even if some of those locations are in the same office space. 

This way, team members may be less likely to feel excluded or at a disadvantage because they chose the flex or remote work option.

This strategy may work well for some teams but not others, such as large ones in which a small minority of members are remote or flex. But it might not work at all for others. Ideally, managers should get input from their teams before experimenting with meeting formats.   

Bottom line: You should be uncomfortable

Like many of you, I’m still figuring out all the nuances of creating an inclusive environment in this new world of work. It’s confusing. It’s complicated. 

It’s uncomfortable.

But that’s okay. If you’re nervous about how to make your new workplace inclusive, that’s how you should be feeling. Being uncomfortable means you’re not simply reverting to the status quo. Instead, you’re trying new things — things your company has probably never done, at least not at this scale. 

However you decide to approach DI&B in a hybrid workplace, one of the most important things you can do is to be curious. Ask employees what they need in this new environment to feel included, valued — and set up for success.