The hybrid workplace — a blend of in-office, in-person and remote work offsite — is here to stay. We know the flexibility of a partially or fully remote workplace is beneficial for many reasons that will outlast the pandemic. For example, organizations with hybrid workforces enjoy increased access to remote talent and higher retention rates, while employees appreciate the flexibility and view the option to work remotely as a form of compensation equal to any in their benefits package. But despite the advantages, remote work also has the potential to reveal and exacerbate inequity in our workplaces. Therefore, as we move forward into the future of work, the challenge will be to create workplace environments with equity in mind.
However, to develop and support equity in the workplace, it won’t be enough to provide equal access to laptops, mobile phones and an internet connection. The solution to building equitable workplaces isn’t to add more dial-in meetings held over video conference, although that has certainly provided a starting point for many organizations during the pandemic. Instead, we must recognize and design new ways of working to empower employees, provide opportunity and meet them where they live — in a manner of speaking.
It will take more than technology to build equity into the hybrid workplace. Instead, we will need to take a proactive approach to support employees and develop better communication initiatives with the mindset that equity initiatives are always ongoing — there’s no ending point. “It’s not going to be enough to give our employees equal access,” says Ron Zamir, CEO of AllenComm. “It’s a challenge, and it’s always going to be a work in progress. Design is critical. We’re only at the beginning of our journey. But I’m an optimist.”
Defining Equity in Remote and Hybrid Workplaces
So, how do we define equity in the remote workplace? First, let’s begin by clearing up confusion around the term “equity” that commonly leads to misunderstandings.
The terms “equity” and “equality,” although similar and often confused, do not have the same meaning. Equality often means providing each person with the same resources, regardless of their needs. Equity, in the most essential form, is about opportunity. It is a human-centered approach to recognize individual needs in order to meet the conditions necessary for people to have the tools to succeed and grow. Equity involves empowering employees with the tools they need to be successful, based on their individual circumstances.
When we discuss equity for a hybrid workforce, we’re covering the issues that may arise in a remote workplace that could exacerbate barriers to a level playing field.
How to Build Equity into Remote Work, Barriers to Overcome, and Why It Matters
With the challenge of building equity in the workplace, we have the opportunity to build newly revitalized, more successful organizations. If anything, our newly hybrid workplaces provide a tremendous opportunity for progress.
How? When we work together in an office, it creates an artificial environment that masks equity issues that may be holding back a team. For example, we all have the same technology available to us, and the norms of dress, procedure and schedule to simplify many things. But when we work from home, the opportunities in flexibility can also create opportunities for misunderstandings. It can uncover and highlight the differences between us. Remote work may lead to misperceptions about who is and isn’t working or putting in effort, based on preconceived ideas held over from traditional office customs.
These concerns about inequities caused by remote work are based on more than conjecture and anecdote. Studies are showing that some employees, including members of groups already traditionally marginalized, are more likely to want to remain working from home. But research done by a Stanford economic professor shows that people working from home are less likely to achieve promotions. Other research has shown similar promotion rates, but a slower rate of compensation increases even when other factors are ruled out.
For these reasons, we can see that we must consciously counter potential issues around remote work with equity initiatives built on increased communication to avoid misunderstandings. We must examine our policies and procedures to determine the best path forward.
In reviewing our workplaces, we might ask ourselves the following questions to begin the process of building equity:
- How do we bridge the experience gap between employees that are in-person and those working remotely?
- Who on the team might have greater challenges to overcome just to participate, and what support can we provide?
- What can we do to bridge gaps in access and proactively accommodate team members with different needs around remote work?
These aren’t empty exercises. Some companies are already putting measures in place to level the remote playing field for their workforce. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that Cloudflare in San Francisco made the decision to require all employees to log into video meetings if even one member of the team is calling in remotely. Other companies are bridging gaps between remote and in-person meeting attendees by providing agendas ahead of time and making certain to communicate that people won’t be penalized for different types of participation.
So, what can your organization do to make your workplace more equitable?
Steps to Establish More Equitable Workplaces
Every workplace and organization is different and will have its own set of needs. However, the following steps will be useful for any group seeking to make improvements:
- Establish a diverse and inclusive workplace. Is your organization actively seeking talent across backgrounds to enrich your team with varied talent and points of view? Has your organization put measures in place to support recognition of lived experience, provide necessary accommodations and encourage the inclusion of all members of your team? Does your workforce reflect your client base and community? Contributions from people of different ethnicities, genders, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds are needed to build a successful organization and should be encouraged.
- Use evaluations to create a map that makes sense for your organization.Is your team more engaged and productive from home, or in the office? The needs of employees may vary by role, personality, personal life needs and tools needed to perform their jobs. Some employees, for example, are more productive at home where they can focus effectively to produce creative or highly detailed analytical work. Others may benefit from collaborative brainstorming and access to team members. Plan your decisions based on team and individual needs. You may do this by taking surveys. You might also use the talent in your L&D departments to leverage needs analysis data collection. Performance mapping, use of needs analysis tools and performance consultants are all useful options.
- Invest in improved content and reconsider your use of technology. It’s no wonder that organizations are placing upskilling, reskilling, onboarding, leadership and diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) training at the top of their priority lists for the year ahead, as these are all vital areas to increase workplace equity. You can improve content in all these areas by rethinking the user experience (UX) design to develop a blended model. Use video, interactive websites, social functions like chat and content planning that considers both in-person and remote experiences. Make it mobile. Create platforms that act as a repository of knowledge that employees can access to do their jobs when a manager isn’t available to take questions.
- Communicate intentions and updated policies to management effectively. Have you gotten buy-in from management to increase equity in your workplace? It’s a critical step to provide management with training and support to build equity, as they are on the front lines with your team. Help them be proactive and give them the tools to communicate effectively. Provide them with skills training, confidence-building immersive exercises and more.
- Provide skills training. Do you have a career development training plan in place? According to multiple industry reports, including the 2021 LinkedIn Workplace Learning report, more employees (and especially Gen Z) are using remote time to access training programs to improve performance. Providing employees with accessible options to improve and develop their career is key to promoting equity.
Any equity initiative implemented by your organization should be an ongoing effort. There will always be room for improvement. The goal, ultimately, is to support and empower employees to give their best and bridge gaps between in-person and remote team members. Organizations that recognize and support their employees will benefit from increased productivity, loyalty and retention — all of which improve the bottom line and increase successful outcomes.