Watch out for inequality and bias to remote workers in the hybrid office

In the past few months, companies around the world have been contemplating this one question: should they bring the workers back into the office? Or allow them to work remotely indefinitely? Or have a hybrid environment? While there are pros and cons for any type of workplace, I’d like to caution that the hybrid environment could introduce inequality.

The hybrid environment is nothing new. Before the pandemic, it’s called a distributed environment. If some team members work in the office, and some out of the office, then they’re called distributed teams. I have worked in distributed environments for over 15 years. I’d like to point out some issues that I have experienced in those years. Perhaps you could avoid those same pitfalls in this new hybrid environment.

One of the biggest factors that could drive inequality between remote and office-based workers is proximity to company leaders. Before the pandemic, company leaders tended to be in the office full time. The employees who work in the office would get more visibility with leadership. A study from Stanford University suggests remote workers are less likely to be promoted than their in-office peers. Even though there are metrics showing remote workers being more productive, putting in more hours and delivering more and/or better results, they still get promoted less often as their in-office peers. In my personal experience, the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality is not without truth. The employees who work remotely can get forgotten. Their achievements can get overlooked or minimized when time comes for promotions, salary raises and bonuses.

Also, watch out for bias against remote workers. It could become a new obstacle to making workplaces more diverse and inclusive. Over time, bias against remote workers could add to wider workplace equality problems. Bias is even more of a concern when layering on the extra level of who is more likely to work remotely.

When I was working remotely before the pandemic, I felt like a second-class citizen. I felt like a nuisance to the people in the office because they had to find ways to include me in things. I definitely felt like my opportunities were limited. For some of my colleagues, when they felt those things, they tended not to put as much into the company and the effort as they could. That is sad, because it means the company loses talented employees.

Let me suggest a few practical tips to help make the hybrid environment more inclusive:

  1. Do not assign seats for employees in the offices. Center office time on less frequent, more intentional, more impactful gatherings.
  2. Level the playing field for remote workers in how meetings are conducted. Instead of having in-office employees gather in a conference room while remote employees dial in, if one person is not in the physical room, everyone will dial in separately on their laptop, regardless of whether they’re in the office. Space is equal on the screen, and everybody’s name is there.
  3. Have executives work remotely to set the example for the rest of the company. That exhibits flexibility and lessens the perceived advantage of getting “face time” with decision makers in the office.

Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll do a more in-depth look at how we approach work holistically.

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