Long reads

Without inclusion, this is what your hybrid office could look like

27 May 2021 By Jo Faragher

Many employers are assessing how a mix of home and office working could benefit them – but they risk disadvantaging certain groups of employees

As an HR professional, it’s impossible to escape the words ‘hybrid working’ right now. Teams have spent months reviewing policies and discussing strategies for how – and, more importantly, where – the workforce might begin to return to some sort of post-pandemic normality. Every day seems to produce a new announcement from a major brand on its ‘future of work’ strategy, and experts appear to agree that hybrid is the way forward. 

But there have been a few vocal dissenters. Last month JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said he expected the investment bank’s offices to return to how they looked pre-Covid by the autumn. “It doesn’t work for those who want to hustle. It doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation. It doesn’t work for culture,” he said. At Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, CEO David Solomon sent staff a missive demanding that they come back to the office from June, claiming a culture of “collaboration, innovation and apprenticeship” could not thrive without being together in an office. There are clear arguments in favour of a hybrid model where staff come together to collaborate but do the bulk of their everyday work at home, but could they be on to something, or is there a danger that hybrid is not as inclusive as it seems?

“The lived experience of hybrid working in a more normal context will be so different to what it is now,” says Emma Parry, professor of human resource management at Cranfield University. “There’s been a camaraderie while we’ve all been at home but, if you’re at home and your colleagues are in the office, that dynamic is different. We know from years of research into flexible working that creating two tiers of workers can lead to discrimination against people who work from home because they’re not seen,” she says. Indeed, a study of working patterns in April by the Office for National Statistics suggested this could already be happening. It found that employees who worked predominantly from home were less likely to receive bonuses or pay rises. A survey by management consultancy Lane4 also showed that almost three in 10 employees received no training to support their professional development while working in a hybrid environment.

Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser for resourcing and inclusion at the CIPD, says that, unless organisations build their hybrid strategies through an “inclusion and fairness lens”, there could be unintended consequences for certain groups. “There has been evidence through the pandemic that child and elder care tends to fall more on women’s shoulders, so there is a potential danger there; those with disabilities or long-term health conditions might also want to work from home more,” she explains. Managers need to be made aware of the risk of presence bias – not picking someone for a plum project because they can see them in the office every day, for example – and must ensure their teams are all party to discussions. “There should be no side conversations going on,” she says. “Also, you could end up with ‘haves and have nots’ if there are frontline workers who are unable to work remotely, so it’s important to talk to them about different ways they can benefit from the flexibility offered to other employees.” 

Emma Bartlett, partner at law firm CM Murray, adds that creating any division between home workers and those in the office – even informally – could have a longer-term impact. “Working with different people, whether that is incidentally meeting them in the workplace or undertaking projects together, helps employees learn about each other in a way that is often lost through videoconferencing, where networking is not on the agenda and work may become the sole purpose of the interaction,” she says. “In doing so, unconscious or actual bias may not change or may become more pronounced. It’s incredibly important to create diverse teams to avoid group thinking, which can also increase risk for the business as well as hinder creativity.” 

She adds that, over time, there may be certain groups of individuals who are more likely to hold on to home working than others because of their protected characteristics, such as working parents and those with underlying health conditions. “They may become isolated from colleagues or miss out on work opportunities by virtue of being ‘out of sight’, or they may start to lose confidence compared to those physically working alongside their colleagues. The overall result could give rise to indirect discrimination based on their protective characteristic (for example, gender or disability). An additional unintended consequence could therefore be a broadening of the gender pay gap,” she says.

Employees’ personal circumstances may also influence where they choose to work, so hybrid strategies need to take this into consideration, according to Lydia Moore, associate in the employment group at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. “Organisations will need to be aware that unless everyone has equal access to the same spaces, equipment and opportunities, a working from home arrangement could lead to less favourable treatment and indirect discrimination claims,” she says. Moore advocates reviewing standard employment contracts to cover some of the more practical considerations of a hybrid set-up, such as place of work (if ‘normal’ place of work is home, state that the employee can be required to attend the office); whether they have core hours of work; details of expense allowances; and their data protection obligations.  

Successful hybrid working is about so much more than what’s on paper, however. Rather than defaulting to policy, managers will need to consult with their teams regularly on whether arrangements work for all groups. We’re even seeing the emergence of new roles dedicated to building these frameworks, with titles such as ‘chief mental health officer’ and ‘head of remote’. “There’s a fear that, if you ask, you’ll get thousands of permutations of working arrangements, but it’s actually more likely to be three or four,” says Stuart Duff, partner and head of development at Pearn Kandola. “The best leaders of remote teams know exactly how people like to communicate, and how they like to be communicated with, rather than saying ‘this is our team and this is how we do it’.” 

Amy Walters, head of research at Lane4, argues that this regular consultation can be a chance to instil a sense of belonging and inclusion. “It feeds into how you share information, the assumptions you make about your ‘team normal’. You need to find a balance between fostering a sense of belonging but individuals feeling their identity is preserved,” she says. “If people feel stressed because they are in a minority or that they need to cover something up, then change the default.” 

Duff warns that even in a hybrid environment there’s a danger of employees falling into ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, however, which could threaten team cohesion. “People fall into new patterns of working quickly – even in flexible working spaces people start putting photos on their desks and talking to the same people they see on that day – you can have the best possible set-up but people are still flawed and biased,” he adds. 

Before introducing its ‘Work, Life, Shift’ hybrid working programme, Fujitsu UK asked all employees about their working preferences, with 18 per cent opting to return to the office full time. But managers continue to have an open dialogue with teams to ensure policies are executed flexibly, says John Pink, managing director for the private sector. Fujitsu’s approach is based on principles rather than rigid rules, and regular consultation has already led to an increase in engagement, in particular from female colleagues. Going forward, role modelling will be a key factor in avoiding the ‘say, do’ gap that destroys trust in leaders, says Pink: “There are unintended consequences in the behaviours of leaders – saying one thing but then observed to be encouraging presenteeism, and a return to pre-pandemic office culture. The opportunity for organisations that find the right balance will differentiate them in the market, and it will open up an array of opportunities for talent from all backgrounds to thrive and drive the organisation forward.”

Sara Thompson, HR director at savings and retirement firm Phoenix Group, also led a consultation with employees to ensure inclusivity sits at the core of its hybrid approach. This includes ensuring that if offices are adapted this is done so with accessibility in mind, and that the technology used to support hybrid working is inclusive of all employees, as well as thinking about the behaviours that support this new working culture. During Covid both Phoenix and Fujitsu witnessed how working from home often put undue pressure on those with caring and family responsibilities, and both have introduced five days’ additional paid carers’ leave. Thompson says: “Overall our approach is focused on enabling colleagues to agree on an individual basis the working arrangements that will work best for them. We will use a framework to consider the balances of a role, the activity being worked on and the individual’s preferences.” 

Often, however, employees need to feel comfortable before they can speak up if new arrangements don’t fit, or need extra support. Many employees with disabilities felt frustrated by how quickly employers were able to offer adaptations at the start of the pandemic, for instance. “These are things we have been asking for for many years, such as flexible working structures and working from home options,” says Atif Choudhury, chief executive of social enterprise Diversity and Ability. “If organisations are proactive about making these changes then people don’t have to have a high degree of self-advocacy to get back to work.” 

In the coming months, he adds, organisations should not assume that employees with disabilities will prefer working from home even though many found remote working easier during the pandemic. An “anticipatory welcome” should be part of any inclusive hybrid strategy. “There’s a risk of creating a world where non-disabled people work in the office and those with disabilities work from home because the office is not accessible,” says Choudhury. “Being physically able to access the office is still important, and these spaces need to be set up in such a way that we can access that space if we so desire.” 

For organisations that build their approach to hybrid through this lens, this could be an opportunity to lessen some of the inequalities that have been highlighted over the past year. “The positive way to look at this is that we will begin to counter certain penalties women and other minorities have experienced as a result of being out of sight,” argues Sarah Jackson, flexible working campaigner and former CEO of charity Working Families. “More women will work from home more often, but there will also be a chunk of men that choose to work from home too, and organisations are much more sensitive to losing male talent than female. They’ll become more alert to things like proximity bias when that applies to all employees, which could soften career penalties and legitimise working remotely whoever you are, and lead to a shift in culture.” 

The challenge is that the shift to hybrid is going to be a new experience for every organisation – its impact will be hard to predict because there’s no data to base it on. “The most important thing is to have a spotlight on inclusion and fairness at the heart – whether it’s training, technology or communications,” concludes McCartney. “We know more about our colleagues than ever before thanks to the pandemic, so we need to use that sense of connection to address inequality as soon as possible if we see it.”

Which hybrid mode works best? 

Alexia Cambon, director for research at analyst company Gartner, says one of the issues around hybrid working is that organisations tend to be vague about what it actually means. “It’s not just that there is no set place of work, it’s a model,” she says. “Rather than thinking about it as a black-and-white policy, it’s better to view it as a philosophy with core principles that are your guardrails. It should be employee driven, from the perspective of ‘how can I make this way of working help me to be more productive’ rather than ‘one size fits all’.” 

Gartner has come up with four collaboration ‘modes’ in the hybrid environment: 

  • Working together, together (in the same building, synchronously)
  • Working together, apart (remotely, but synchronously)
  • Working alone, together (in the same building but working on different things, asynchronously)
  • Working alone, apart (asynchronously from a remote location)

During the pandemic, much of the focus was on distributed synchronous work, but Cambon argues that inclusive employers will need to make all of these modes equally accessible: “Organisations tend to think that synchronous work creates innovation and have historically underinvested in asynchronous work. Different personality types will enjoy different modes – junior staff will get passive learning from the office while introverts may prefer to work alone. It’s about understanding how teams collaborate and what their dynamics are, and using the modes accordingly.” 

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