Since the onset of the pandemic, hybrid arrangements have become a fixture of the modern world of work. Even as workers and employers increasingly clash over return-to-office mandates, the shift toward hybrid work continues.

Gartner estimates that 51% of knowledge workers in the U.S. will engage in hybrid work, and 20% will work remotely full time, by the end of 2023. Hybrid is already the most common type of remote-work arrangement, with similar worker and employer preferences for the amount of time spent in office, at 2.8 days per week and 2.3 days per week, respectively. In addition, job postings offering remote work are rising to record levels, especially in cities with large white-collar workforces, such as New York and Chicago. 

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It’s easy to see why: in a 2022 Gallup survey, hybrid workers listed the top advantages as better work-life balance, productivity and efficiency; greater control over where and when they work; and less burnout. In addition, the option to work remotely offers workers access to more employment opportunities, as well as the ability to live and work in more affordable areas of the country, while enabling companies to tap into a wider pool of talent.

“When you think about the cost of living in major markets, where major employers are often located, it can create a barrier to entry for many jobseekers,” says Jessica Hardeman, Indeed’s employee lifecycle director. “Being able to work remotely truly affords more people the opportunity to earn a living wage. It can be life-changing for workers and their families.”

But it also comes with hidden pitfalls. Work bleeding into the weekend can contribute to burnout.  It can also be challenging to re-create the feelings of camaraderie among dispersed teams that may grow more organically in an in-office environment. As a result, employee engagement, performance and retention can suffer. 

In her role at Indeed, Hardeman oversees each stage of the employee lifecycle to ensure Indeed builds processes, policies and programs through the lens of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB+). Here, she addresses the top three challenges of hybrid work and offers effective yet simple solutions for supporting inclusion and belonging no matter where your employees are located.

Challenge #1: Overcoming Proximity Bias in Hybrid Work

Proximity bias refers to the tendency for business leaders to favor those who work physically close to them. They may offer more promotions or other professional opportunities to employees who predominantly work in the office over those who prefer to work from home; this favoritism can also exacerbate existing organizational inequities. For example, data from Future Forum found that only 3% of Black knowledge workers wanted to return to the office, compared to 21% of white knowledge workers. Other research shows that women and people of color say they prefer remote or hybrid work more than white men do, likely due to the absence of daily microaggressions and the need to code switch in the physical workplace. 

Some leaders may believe those who choose to work in the office are more committed than their remote counterparts. For others, proximity bias can arise through missing out on “serendipitous interactions” — those impromptu, between-meeting conversations that can’t happen over Zoom. Simply having a particular person on your mind from your last in-person encounter might make you more likely to offer them opportunities and advancement.

“We have to make a conscious behavioral shift to thoughtfully distribute opportunities — not only how we’re distributing them, but who we’re distributing them to,” says Hardeman. “Every opportunity should be made available to anyone with the right skill set, knowledge and subject-matter expertise.”

Start by thinking about your meetings in a more holistic way: how can you support in-person connections without excluding remote workers? Set hybrid meetings as the standard and leave space for small talk to occur on camera. If something meaningful is discussed before or after, make a point to loop in remote workers so they have a chance to participate. 

In addition, Hardeman recommends amplifying opportunities to the whole team to get insight or gauge interest in taking it on. From there, assign work based on their skills and the level of urgency. For example, does a project require someone who can hit the ground running, or is it okay if they need extra time to get up to speed? Use this method to shift away from proximity-based decision-making and toward greater equity and inclusion.

Image shows a male presenting, Black person sitting at a desk on a Zoom meeting. He is wearing a dark green shirt and black glasses, and has a white wireless earbud in. He has a notebook and a pen and appears to be taking notes while on a virtual call with 9 people.

Challenge #2: Building Community and Belonging Remotely

Physical proximity can also foster strong relationships. This is key to improving employee engagement as well as belonging, the sense of community someone feels with the people they work with and within the work environment. A healthy sense of belonging makes employees feel connected, psychologically safe and free to be their authentic selves. 

Building relationships with coworkers can be more challenging in a virtual environment, so Hardeman says it's up to leaders to create space for these connections to grow.

“Be thoughtful about what engagement looks like,” she says. “Don’t make everything about business; really offer the opportunity for people to get to know each other and bond. Employers have to make the effort to facilitate these conversations now more than ever.”

One strategy is offering hybrid workers the option of engaging in communal coworking. For example, Hardeman’s team at Indeed blocks off time each Friday for an optional “work and mingle,” a chance for team members to log on to Zoom and casually chat as they perform their normal tasks together. They find that the ability to work alongside one another as if they were in an open-concept office helps build companionship and camaraderie. 

Additionally, consider hosting activities designed to help hybrid teams connect on a deeper level. This might include informal, virtual “offsite” events, such as an escape room or cooking class, or encouraging people to create and share their own “user manuals” detailing their personalities and work preferences.

Challenge #3: Balancing Competing Priorities

While video meetings are crucial for connecting hybrid teams, too many meetings can wear people out and even waste time and money. But people managers especially need them, so it's all about finding balance.

“Video meetings have literally become how we stay connected to our teams, so when you remove meetings from your calendar, some people may feel slighted,” says Hardeman. “They may feel as if you don’t want to spend this time with them or that the meeting wasn't important to you. People really begin to take the time they get to spend with you personally.”

Prioritize one-on-one meetings with direct reports to keep consistent touchpoints. If you need to cancel, clearly communicate the reason in advance and then promptly reschedule or connect directly with the individual in another capacity. It’s also important to equally divide your time between in-person and remote employees to avoid the perception of favoritism and the pitfalls of proximity bias.

Ultimately, Hardeman encourages leaders to weigh meeting efficiency with the imperative to make remote workers feel included and valued. 

“We have to be intentional about how we're scheduling meetings and how we're responding when we can't make them,” she says. “People value that time, especially with leaders. When we cancel consistently, they feel like they're not important anymore. And that's the opposite effect we want to have.”