Hybrid Working Won’t Work Without Inclusive Leaders

If the pandemic has been good for one thing, it’s that it has finally showed us a better way of living where we can integrate our professional livelihood with our personal lives, family commitments and non-work related goals. The pandemic has forced us to reconsider the workplace, and employers have finally had to adopt measures that some employees, such as those who are disabled, have been advocating for years; a flexible, hybrid workplace.

Organisations that willingly give the option of hybrid working to their employees will reap their own benefits; they will be more appealing to potential applicants, they will have a lower rate of employee turnover, and their employees are less likely to suffer from burnout so their quality of work will be better. Crucially, it will also help to diversify their employee pool as it offers more opportunities for people to work in a way that suits them. That’s without even mentioning the money saved on office space!

On top of this, as you are likely aware by now, a hybrid workforce appeals to almost everyone in some shape or form – and you’re probably one of them. It will offer more opportunities to a wider group of employees and potential employees and retain individuals who might have left as it opens doors to those who might need to stay home, perhaps due to childcare responsibilities or those who are disabled or have chronic illnesses. It gives employees more opportunities about where to live if they’re not consistently required in the office, meaning that individuals who cannot afford to (or do not wish to) live in a city can still work in a central location. Additionally, it appeals to individuals who have hobbies and interests that two hours of travelling a day into the office significantly detracts from. The potential for a genuinely enjoyable work/life balance is finally within reach. These are just a few of the key areas that we can identify where hybrid working caters to the individual; undoubtedly there will be hundreds more reasons why hybrid working will be the better option for employees everywhere.

However, whilst the switch to home working at the beginning of the pandemic was abrupt, we need to make sure that the transition back to a hybrid split of home/office working is carried out intentionally and systematically. There are risks associated with badly executed hybrid working, particularly in the context of exacerbating existing inequalities, or even creating new divides between groups of people. To mitigate and decrease the likelihood of a dichotomised workforce, we need managers who lead inclusively and hybrid working policies that have diversity, equity and inclusion at the heart of them.

What to Watch Out for With Hybrid Working – How to Transition Well 

Presenteeism: One practice that we need to consider as we move toward a hybrid workforce is that of presenteeism, which occurs far more than we may expect. Flexible and/or hybrid workers are often unfairly seen as less committed, and those who work long hours in the office are often seen as the best and most valuable employees. On top of this, the “mere exposure effect” means that people are more likely to feel an affinity with people they’re familiar with – so before you know it, managers are unconsciously favouring the employees they often see in person and these individuals are the ones benefitting from promotions and pay rises. Being in the office has long been known to be associated with career progression. This is, of course, going to pose a problem for employees who spend less time in the physical workplace – be this due to commitments, health or even a preference towards introversion – but regardless of this, it’s actually a misguided way of judging employee value. It’s important for managers to focus on output and not input – after all, it makes sense that the employee who gets the job done well in half the time is the most valuable!

Magnifying unconscious bias: If it’s not managed well, hybrid working can actually serve to exacerbate existing biases and presumptions about certain individuals in the workplace. Remote working is most likely to be taken up by women as they typically shoulder the majority of the care burden, and thus due to the effects of presenteeism, working parents are more likely to be seen as “less committed” to their job and will miss out on crucial opportunities. This is also true for disabled employees who may choose to work from home more often to cater to their personal circumstances. Unfortunately, this means that the individuals who often already suffer from a lack of career progression opportunities could see this magnified unless inclusive hybrid working policies are put into place. If hybrid working isn’t implemented with D&I at the core of its policies, it could become ‘the worst of both worlds’ (9).

Divide between office and remote workers: A split workforce needs careful thought. There’s actually a significant level of privilege associated with working in an office – it assumes that someone can afford to live in bigger cities or pay significant transport costs, have good daily health or are able bodied, and can afford childcare. This means that the proportion of employees who choose to work remotely are likely to be more diverse from the baseline population, and this could create an ever-widening privilege gap (2). On top of this – as we already know, these employees already typically suffer the most in career progression, and this could be exacerbated. As more male and able-bodied workers are most likely to return to the office, they’ll reap the benefits of presenteeism, creating a two-tiered workforce.

There is also the problem of a potential split between home and office workers that could result in in-group and out-group bias, where one feels more closely affiliated with individuals who closely resemble them. This could lead to reduced levels of collaboration within hybrid working teams, and even increase the potential for conflict if unconscious biases go unchecked. As we’ve all discovered over the past year, connecting with people over video calls is much harder than in real life – it feels stilted, artificial and forced, and makes it difficult to form new relationships. This means that employees are more likely to reinvest in existing relationships rather than fostering new ones with remote employees, decreasing networking opportunities for home workers. Finally, those who work from home are less likely to engage in those spontaneous ‘water-cooler’ moments which are great sources of bonding and provide fuel for innovative idea generation.

The Impact of Inclusive Leadership

By now it is clear that there are several significant pitfalls that we can fall into if we don’t consciously design our hybrid working policies. Everyone’s circumstances are different, and so it’s unlikely that there will be a “one size fits all” solution, but it will help everyone if we keep inclusivity at the core of our decision making. This means that we need leaders who consistently act inclusively and are well versed in the potential snags of hybrid working.

Recent Deloitte research points to leaders making up to a 70% difference to whether an individual feels included, and inclusivity as a leadership trait is about to be more important than ever as we move towards a split workforce. This means that key characteristics such as empathy and emotional intelligence need to be actively cultivated in leaders through workshops and training to help them manage this new workplace dynamic. It is essential that organisations are mindful that the way they go about this workplace upheaval will affect the different groups of people that they employ (5). As we’ve explored in our previous article surrounding the value of inclusive leadership, traditional leadership models are growing steadily more outdated, and hierarchical models of leadership are beginning to dissipate. The most important trait for managers today is their ability to lead inclusively.

Inclusive leaders will naturally help mitigate some of these hybrid working pitfalls as they’ll be more tuned in to their employees’ specific circumstances. They’ll be more conscious about levelling the playing field for home workers, be more aware of their own presenteeism bias, understand the existing gender, race, ethnicity and disability gaps, and appreciate that these groups need to be prioritised when creating a new hybrid working culture.

Here are some actions a manager of today’s teams can take to help their teams stay motivated and on track:

  1. Unite the team around a common purpose and communicate it regularly reminding them of the company’s vision, the purpose of their work, the team’s goals and how you will collaborate to achieve them. Discourage the use of “us versus them” language – where you hear it point it out, remind everyone of the value of difference to achieve the common goal.
  2. Deepen team members’ knowledge of each other – it takes longer for teams to get to know each other virtually than in person. Help the members of the group connect the dots and get to know you and each other so they can truly feel like part of a team.
  3. Develop strong team dynamics – create a climate that encourages different perspectives, team support and healthy debate. Diverse teams can take longer to form but are far more productive and creative in the long run. Make sure to resolve any conflicts proactively rather than letting them fester which can happen more with physical distance.
  4. Manage the morale of individuals – understand your team members’ different workstyles and motivations. Watch closely for warning signs of stress such as reduced work output, short and abrupt  emails, reluctance to engage in telephone calls or video conference calls or shortage of new ideas. Create open and informal channels for giving praise, which could otherwise be forgotten in the virtual world.
  5. Recognise if they are becoming isolated and provide more attention. Make a point of intentionally connecting with people in their remote offices, and plan it in more regularly than those you are seeing in the office whom you will spontaneously be striking up more conversations with.
  6. Think about your communication methods – Humans believe what they see and experience via other people’s actions and behaviour far more than they do their words. Email is an essential part of our working day, but use phone to build rapport and deepen conversations, and use virtual platforms with cameras to build trust and collaboration. Allow moments for casual chat in your meetings – it lowers barriers and encourages the team to speak more.
  7. Consider communication processes across the whole team encouraging effectiveness and limiting communication overload. Invest time carefully in those on a different hybrid pattern to you as they will have less opportunities for casual communication. Ensure you provide informal as well as formal support i.e. career development to all employees, not just those in the office. Listen out for the quieter voices that have thrived over the past year and continue to include the channels that helped this.
  8. Be creative about ways to achieve team bonding – When team members are physically separated, they miss out on informal chat, small talk and office banter. As well as encouraging them to do this ad hoc, provide these opportunities yourself, for example by starting a meeting 15 minutes early and staying 15 minutes late for a chat. Instigate coffee breaks and other gatherings to informally connect online colleagues with on-site staff. These can play a vital role in keeping people connected and visible in order to rebalance the dangers of on-site presenteeism. If remote colleagues are detached from check-ins, collaboration and the social dynamics of the workplace, they are vulnerable to many risks or missed opportunities, from being overlooked for promotions (by management) to disengagement (by their colleagues).
  9. Ensure that rewards are equal – When rewarding performance, ensure that you’re equal and fair. Do you reward workers appropriately and thoughtfully? Do workers in remote offices feel as valued and rewarded as those closer in proximity to you?
  10. Build trust and cultivate a feeling of community and respect – The amount of trust, collaboration and knowledge has a far greater impact on the success of a virtual team. Leaders who are focused on wellbeing and achieving consensus generate greater trust and increased participation than those with an authoritative, commanding approach. Be clear that the team’s success is based on the quality of output, not on how many hours are spent in the office or online. Trust is a two way street; 93% of companies in a Mercer study reported that productivity has stayed the same or increased since employees began working remotely.
  11. Make a point of being accessible to the team – Include one-on-one time to check in, not just on their work but how they are themselves. Ask them for feedback, checking what’s working and not working for them. Work together on what can be improved.
  12. Be considerate of an individual’s home situation, commitments, and time zone. Set meetings and calls as thoughtfully as your own schedule allows.