Now that organisations around the world have proven to themselves that they can function perfectly well on a remote basis through a global crisis, many are experimenting with different ideas and approaches for the ‘new normality’ — looking ahead to a time when at least some people can return to the offices which have been gathering dust since early 2020.
For most this is going to involve some kind of hybrid approach, because of the logistical impossibility of bringing everyone back into crowded offices on even more crowded public transport at the same time, as we did things in the ‘BC’ world. It remains very unclear however just how flexible these arrangements will be, and what this will do for inclusivity in the workplace, and we’ve already prepared a free guide to help you identify and advocate for the kind of hybrid work you want — you can get your copy here.
But whatever your personal priorities, there are real dangers that hybrid working could reinforce old inequalities, or even create brand-new ones: so you’ll need to consider how this affects you and the place you work at.
A new space for indirect discrimination to re-emerge
For example, historically (i.e. in the pre-pandemic era), women were typically more likely than men to take on more responsibility for childcare or other caring arrangements, and thus to request flexible, part-time, or remote working. A new understanding and acceptance of remote work and the productivity it can yield will surely help many more mothers and carers shape a career which adapts around their other commitments and creates a better work-life balance and quality of life — which is surely a good thing.
But what happens if more men go back to the office than women?
What happens if this creates or perpetuates a perceived correlation between seniority and professional commitment within an organisation, and whether or not you work on site for some or all of the time?
Lots of hybrid teams (because this is not something that got invented this year) have already struggled with the emergence of a two-tier hierarchy, with those at the office being far more visible to their colleagues and those responsible for their career development. Unless very specific measures are taken to avoid it, it’s inevitable that those on-site are going to enjoy earlier and richer streams of unofficial workplace communication, from rumour and gossip to social events and encounters, to picking up on shifts in atmosphere and body language.
Some of this will be harmless or fun, but it’s bound to advantage anyone with an eye on promotion opportunities or plum projects, when they’re more directly visible due to physical presence. Simply being top of mind, being noticed, and receiving credit for work well done, is all subject to availability bias, i.e. our natural tendency to notice and respond to what is directly under our noses.
Being seen in all the right places
And while some workplace debates and decisions take place via formal fair and transparent channels, some have always taken place in far less inclusive ways, which are bound to advantage those on the ground. When everyone is networking online it can remove barriers and open up new opportunities, busting silos and dismantling hierarchies – when you can Slack your big idea directly to the CEO, it increases opportunity to skip the line and get noticed. It’s the emergence of two cohorts which is the danger – but when some have access to the physical water cooler or after work drinks when others do not, there will systemic disadvantage, as blatant as exclusion from the men-only golf club.
This is not solely a gender issue. Older workers, those with health conditions which increase risk, all sorts of people might be more likely to opt for distributed working given the choice. It intersects with race and ethnicity too, with extended family caring responsibilities being more common in immigrant communities, as well as multi-generational households where workers might be keen to limit exposure risk to protect other family members.
Once again, the ability to choose will create new possibilities for many, and it’s important that this vital optionality is not sacrificed in the name of a level playing field — demanding that everybody work a fixed proportion of time in the office vs. elsewhere would be a clumsy and unhelpful way of attempting to square things up. Equality has never been about treating everyone the same, although there are many workplaces where actively encouraging and normalising greater uptake of non-traditional flexible working options — such as paternity leave — would be a great step forward.
The future of work should be about choice, and about flexibility — which means the flexibility to bring each individual’s best, to work and the rest of life — whether working from home, in the office, or somewhere else.
Addressing bias and overcoming discrimination
Managers who are committed to making hybrid working work well will need to examine their unconscious biases and the creation of inequality of opportunity on this new front, if teams do divide into those who are usually or always physically present, and those who are not. It will, like overcoming any bias, require positive attention and action to do it well.
Some will recognise this, accept the risk to diversity and inclusion if they don’t take it on, and consciously do the work necessary to ensure fairness and accessibility — demanding transparent online-first communication protocols, for example, and making extra effort to ensure remote colleagues are consulted and engaged. And they will find effective ways to make sure the work, and everybody’s contributions, are visible and accountable and correctly credited, whoever is closest to the table at the time.
These organisations will embrace the diversity of lived experience that their WFH colleagues bring to the table, and appreciate the richness that this brings to the workforce as a whole, and everyone will benefit from this. HR will have to broaden their skillset to include remote recruitment and onboarding, but they’ll enjoy the loyalty, better retention, reduced sickness absence, and all the other benefits that a distributed workforce brings.
Others will fail, in ways which could set back the role of women in the workplace by decades.
We need to be talking about this now and bringing it into the conversation, make it visible — before it’s too late. Like everything else related to both D&I and remote working it will require intentionality and deliberate action, because the default won’t serve and will only reinforce existing stereotypes and norms.
If you’re in a formal leadership role and helping to shape the hybrid work strategy within your organisation, you can get equality and remote-first thinking squarely onto the agenda, before it becomes an indirect discrimination issue. And if you’re a grassroots change-maker you’ll need to raise issues and ask questions within your teams, and call out emergent inequalities as you see them.
Right now it feels like we have a chance to do this properly and get it right. Building back better has never been more important. There are so many areas in which this applies, and we must ensure women’s equality is up there with every other complexity of the new normal.