There are competing theories about how hybrid and remote work will impact workforce diversity.
Some people of color have said that they prefer to work from home because it allows them to focus fully on their job without thinking about how other people perceive their behaviors and or having to worry about racist micro-aggressions. Hybrid structures can also free up a company’s recruiting staff to hire diverse talents from rural regions, and other countries, or to reach populations like military spouses, who move around often. However, many experts also worry that if more people from underrepresented groups—including workers from the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities—choose to work from elsewhere, they could enjoy fewer promotions and pay raises over time, leading to less diversity at the top of companies.
Working parents, and particularly women, are anxious for the same reason. For companies that have put in a lot of effort to make the workplace less white and male, the rise of remote work could lead to a setback. Already more women have dropped out of the workforce because of the pressures created by the pandemic.
In a perfect world, the hybrid work model, in which all employees share office time, would allow people to reap the benefits of face time and the serenity and convenience of home. In practice, however, it’s not going to be that straightforward. Here’s what can help, according to experts.
Hybrid policies are not going to be a panacea, warns Rosanna Durruthy, LinkedIn’s head of global diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Whether people are at home or together with others in a building, “it’s going to be up to the manager to create that environment where all employees have that experience of psychological safety to do their best work,” she says.
Companies must invest in building inclusive leaders, she notes: “leaders who demonstrate the ability to not only connect with but to support and empower their employees, whether that employee is going to be sitting in an office alongside them or that employee lives 1,000 miles away,” she says. “That’s the leader who’s going to inspire their direct reports with greater success.”
Beyond inclusive policies, “most of all you need to have people managers who are able to manage the individuals on their team, not by treating everyone the same,” says Durruthy, but by recognizing different experiences and perspectives and, crucially, involving their team in decisions about how to use the office or not.
Andy Horning, psychologist and author of Grappling: White Men’s Journey from Fragile to Agile (Lioncrest, 2021), argues that the transition to hybrid is going to put the onus on everyone to be better allies, because when you’re sitting at home and something happens in the office, it’s easier to hide in the shadows, he says. And if it does turn out that there’s a certain monoculture that develops in the office, one in which you blend in, it might be easier to not speak up on behalf of your unseen coworkers at home if, for example, a new policy that affects them is discussed, or someone makes an offensive comment.
“It’s incumbent upon us to remind ourselves that I’m in a larger group, it’s not just me at home, doing my thing. I’m a part of a larger organization and we need to consciously remember that and choose the kind of greater good of allyship, as opposed to the more selfish individual need for comfort,” he says.
Fortunately, this is also an opportunity to move away from performative allyship, he adds. “We may be asked to be an ally, and no one will know about it.”
Does your company expect to see more parents work from home because it’s easier to care for children that way, even after schools reopen? Or does it imagine that parents will want to book all the hotdesks in the hybrid office because they desperately need a break from the distractions of children at home? Either way, this kind of well-intentioned planning is a problem, says Galina Boiarintseva, associate professor of management at Niagara University, who studies childless employees in the workplace.
Already, childless employees are pushing back against feeling pressured to go into the office, she says. “They’re saying, ‘I might not have a child but at the same time I have a parent who’s immunocompromised,'” she tells Quartz. On the other hand, some people who live alone may want to have the right to go in, she says, because they rely more heavily on the social aspect of the office.
Many parents, especially mothers, fear that their childless peers or men who already shirk household responsibilities will rush back to the office and be handsomely rewarded for it. “These debates are going on side by side,” Boiarintseva says.
For the decision-maker, there is no winning except to “strip away [employees’] family status and really look at each situation without considering home responsibilities,” she concludes. “Come up with solutions that will be employee-friendly,” not parent-friendly.
At BD, a medical device company with 70,000 employees around the world, leadership teams have had varying reactions to the new hybrid rules, according to Betty Larson, BD’s chief human resources officer. In some countries, work cultures are extremely office-oriented and people definitely want to make sure that they’re seen. “If their managers are in, then they’re going to make sure they’re in,” she adds, “and so it’s going to take some time, culturally, getting people comfortable” working more remotely.
In other countries, especially in some locations across Asia, “people just depend on the office, quite honestly.” Maybe they have a small living space, and maybe two or three other people are trying to work from home. “We know that there will be physical constraints to everybody’s ability,” she adds.
This general reset and replanning of work “gives HR leaders, managers, and basically any organization the opportunity to develop new work styles and to ask for new information,” says Nathan Friedman, chief marketing officer of Understood, a company that helps schools and companies build spaces and systems that can accommodate people who are neurodiverse.
“I also really recommend that HR leaders and managers ask people who have accommodations if they need anything else.” Maybe it’s a monitor at home with a better display and contrast ratio or noise-canceling headset or assistive devices, he says. “Employers can do things that are very low cost and have a high, high impact.”
Companies redesigning their offices to have more meeting spaces and fewer individual desks may be smart about keeping the office wheelchair accessible or including basic assistive technology, but Friedman also wants companies to consider learning differences and people who are neurodiverse. One in five Americans have learning and thinking differences, such as dyslexia, and many will not ask for help when they need it, Friedman says.
Assume that some employees struggle with things like ADHD and light sensitivity, he says. Companies could add pink noise and greenery in the office to create a meditative space, something they’re testing at Understood. When you create in-person spaces that will be inviting to everyone, you’ll see a diverse group of differently-abled employees in the office, and greater productivity all around.
Video calls are no longer just a temporary crutch and are likely to be a fixture in a hybrid workplace, even for those in the office. So, says Friedman, when meetings stretch on, make sure you give people breaks to get up, stretch, get a glass of water. This is the kind of small adjustment that would greatly help people who have ADHD, for instance, who may be worn out by the multiple distractions of Zoom calls and find the info shared in video call meetings hard to process. “Even adding three-minute breaks in a long meeting” is enough, says Friedman, “and everybody benefits.”
Part of being a good manager in a hybrid world will mean staying aware of your own proximity bias, a basic quirk of human psychology that leads people to favor those nearest to them and who they see most often.
Many experts who spoke to Quartz said that they are retraining their leaders to become aware of proximity bias so that employees will be given an equal opportunity to get ahead. Managers should be evaluating people based on objectives and results, says BD’s Larson, “not who happens to be in the office most often.”