More than two years since the first Covid lockdown, many companies are embracing hybrid work set-ups. However, this has created a new concern for leadership teams: preventing divisions between remote and in-office employees.
While companies adapted well to the ‘new normal’ of remote working, some are struggling to make the workplace equitable for all. There’s a risk that those who show up at the office and are considered ‘visible’ will be favoured by leadership teams over those who choose to work remotely.
A survey by Future Forum published in January found that 41% of executives are worried about proximity bias and favouritism towards in-office colleagues creeping into their business. This figure was up from 33% three months earlier.
Keep everyone in the loop
So how can employers deliver equitable experiences? First, leadership teams should ensure they don’t confuse equity with equality. There’s a subtle distinction. Equality means everyone is treated the same way regardless of individual differences, while equity is about giving each individual whatever they need to achieve the same outcome.
“Equity in the hybrid workplace isn’t about treating every single person the same. Instead, it’s about ensuring that everyone has the tools, support and environment – be that physical, virtual, or a combination of both – to enable them to thrive at work,” explains Kelly Metcalf, head of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing at Fujitsu.
Maria Campbell is vice president of people at fintech startup Griffin, and previously held a similar role at Monzo. “Equity is about making sure everyone gets a seat at the table, and now the metaphorical table is half in-office and half on-screen.”
This means the important conversations should take place online by default, adds Campbell. All key decisions and processes should be documented and made accessible to all employees regardless of their location. This helps ensure that those working remotely are in the loop and feel as valued as their colleagues in the office.
Lead with empathy
All employees crave a sense of belonging. It’s always been a driver of workplace happiness, but the pandemic crystallised its importance. Belonging increased employee happiness by 12% on average in the first few months of the crisis, according to research by employee engagement platform Glint.
Companies now need to preserve that camaraderie. Leadership teams must manage their hybrid workforces with empathy. Different people will have different working preferences, while certain personal circumstances may mean it’s easier for some to spend most of their week working from home. Leadership teams must avoid giving preferential treatment to those who come into the office more regularly.
Fujitsu, for example, doesn’t ask its employees to come into the office for a fixed number of days per week. Rather, it’s agreed between each worker and their line manager based on circumstances, preferences, and the scope of their job role.
Legal technology firm Juro has created two benefits packages for its employees. One is for employees who prefer to work in-office; it focuses on helping with commuting and access to social events. For those who want to be remote-first, another package provides them with access to a budget covering office equipment purchases and Wi-Fi costs.
Benefits aside, there’s a non-negotiable service that all employees should receive: mental health support.
“Prioritising mental health in the hybrid workplace is critical to ensuring your employees can achieve their best and feel that sense of belonging,” says Tara Ataya, chief people and diversity officer at Hootsuite.
The social media management platform expanded its mental health benefits six-fold in 2021, providing 100% coverage for mental health support in the US. These steps meant employees could visit the best practitioner that aligned with their needs, according to Ataya.
Consider career progression
Creating equitable experiences is all well and good but the hard work will be undone without parity in career progression. Fujitsu has taken steps to guard against favouring
employees who are more visible in person. This means those who prefer to work remotely don’t feel they need to be present in an office to get a promotion, says Metcalf.
An easy and effective way companies can question their own biases is by simply tracking rates of progression within the company, learning who may have been overlooked for promotions.
No employee promotion policy will be perfect, but by being transparent and demonstrating to employees that hybrid equity is on management’s radar, companies can create a place where people will want to work, says Ataya. Ultimately, this will make a company more inclusive and should lead to diverse hires.
If companies fail to create equitable experiences for all employees regardless of their location, certain groups may not feel included, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds. This could lead to brain drain.
“Companies who embrace equity successfully will thrive, and those who don’t will end up losing valuable people to a fiercely competitive talent market,” stresses Campbell.
“Companies need to actively ensure that remote employees feel as valued and heard as their colleagues in the office. If they don’t, they may end up creating new inequities and divisions at work.”