Flexible working: the challenges of a two-tier workforce

With figures showing most employees want to split their time between home and the office, Colin O’Riordan explores the negative implications of having a hybrid workforce

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Hybrid working – working partly in the office face-to-face and partly remotely, often from home – is fast-becoming the norm. Enabled by digital technology, it accelerated during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, many individuals and organisations prefer it. But to reap its rewards, employers must first address its unintended consequences.

Before the pandemic, only around 5 per cent of the UK workforce worked mainly from home and 65 per cent of employers either did not offer regular working from home at all or offered it to 10 per cent or less of their workforce  But by July 2022, ONS figures showed that between October-December 2019 and January-March 2022, homeworking in the UK more than doubled, from 4.7 million to 9.9 million people.

Now, while some employees now want to work from home all of the time, research suggests that most would prefer a balance; in the office for some of the week, working at home for the rest. Why? Because hybrid working offers workers the best of both worlds. It improves work/life balance without compromising work-based social connections. And it also broadens an employer’s available talent pool – for example, by extending its geographical catchment area for recruitment.

Hybrid working can have unintended consequences – with potentially negative impacts, however. And the most notable is the emergence of a two-tier workforce.

Last year, the CIPD warned the UK was at risk of becoming a two-tier workforce when it comes to who has access to flexible working, with analysis from the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey showing some areas of the country are already becoming flexible ‘notspots’.

But a single company’s workforce can be a two-tier workforce, too, when there are inequalities between the in-office and remote working experience. The most obvious inequalities arise when those physically present enjoy advantages that those working remotely don’t and when those not in the office are side-lined or overlooked as they are less visible. This has negative impacts on individuals – reducing career development, for example, progression and promotion opportunities. But by fuelling employee resentment and mistrust, increasing churn, and compromising productivity, it can also damage business.

Certain groups will likely be adversely impacted worse – women, for example, who are 26 per cent more likely than men to apply to work remotely. Among college graduates with young children, women want to work from home 50 per cent more than men, according to one study. Or younger workers – especially those at the earlier stages of their career, when much is learned simply by being physically around people and mentoring is most effective when done face-to-face.

Then there is the potential negative impact on different groups of minorities already underrepresented in the workforce. Digital access varies widely according to race, geography and income, numerous studies show. Lack of access to space and technology are just two hybrid working challenges faced by underrepresented minorities, for example, research shows.

When ethnic minority, rural and low-income workers lose out in a two-tier workforce, however, organisations will struggle to meet the Diversity Equity and Inclusion goals towards which so many are now working.

Remedying hybrid inequities is therefore business-critical. And it depends on devising a strategy to ensure a hybrid workforce is truly inclusive – a strategy with measures that:

  • Avoid proximity bias: Actively avoid favouring those physically present over those who are not. When conducting a performance review, for example, ensure you don’t over-value face-to-face working. When having a hybrid meeting, make efforts to ensure no-one participating remotely feels left out. Google’s approach to building an inclusive workforce, for example, prioritises ‘collaboration equity’ by ensuring everyone has the tools, access and information they need to work together in their teams and be effective in their jobs. This includes measures to ensure input is requested from those participating remotely; using interactive tools to boost inclusivity during discussions; and making meetings as accessible as possible.

  • Build an inclusive culture: A strong workplace culture is important so everyone understands the company’s primary goals and all employees are united in the same clear direction. Make sure this is inclusive to build a sense of community across all workers, not just those physically present. Ensure remote workers can participate in team activities, for example – and if they can’t, find new team activities they can participate in. Employee experience platform Culture Amp has a Slack channel for every city and encourages local camaraderie through interest-based clubs like knitting, cooking and dog appreciation. Global online design platform Canva uses integrated online culture platform Disco so colleagues can give shout-outs to their colleagues.

  • Encourage top-down hybrid working: When business executives hybrid work, they are likely to understand the importance of tackling proximity bias and how to do so better, and gain greater insight into remote working and two-tier workforce dynamics.

  • Bridge your workforce’s digital divide: Invest in the kit needed so all of your workers, not just those who can afford it themselves, have the necessary kit to participate fully when working remotely. This is especially key for lower income groups and, also, those living and working in more remote areas with more limited infrastructure. Google’s inclusive hybrid workforce approach also ensures infrastructure is developed that encourage all employees to support each other – providing the tools and support employees need to build spaces where they can feel connected to others and have a shared sense of identity and, also, creating flexible office spaces.

Colin O'Riordan is a senior digital strategist at Brandwidth