When a significant number of employees began working remotely during the pandemic, our understanding of what the workplace looked like changed dramatically.
And for employees who started working from home, this change didn't just mean a switch from suits to sweatpants. With work moving online, they had more flexibility to get the work done while juggling other priorities and commitments.
But 18 months on, with workplaces around the world adopting a 'hybrid' mix of home and office work and Australians preparing to emerge from extended lockdowns, commentators and researchers have raised alarms about the potential impacts this hybrid model might have on diversity and inclusion.
One US-based researcher reflected that women with young children (often the primary caregivers) were opting to stay home, having less facetime with their managers, and potentially affecting their promotion prospects. Similar concerns of a worker 'divide' within workplaces that use the hybrid model have also been expressed in Australia.
But this doesn't mean that the hybrid model is in any way doomed to fail. Instead, leaders need to rise to the challenge and take a considered approach to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), says Co-Deputy Vice Chancellor EDI and Senior Deputy Dean of Academic Professor Leisa Sargent, and Senior Deputy Dean of Research & Enterprise and Professor of Management Frederik Anseel, of UNSW Business School.
One key factor of success, says Prof Sargent, is a genuine consideration by businesses of face-to-face and online engagement. “Just because someone wants to come into the office and have that face-to-face, doesn't make them a better worker,” she says.
“It just means that they have a different preference for working. We need to be thoughtful about that, and what it means for different groups of people across the organisation,” she says.
Working from home is not experienced equally
Even when barriers such as a need to come into the office everyday are removed, working from home is not immediately conducive to equality. As Prof Sargent points out, it is far from a level playing field in many ways – some less obvious than others.
“It's a myth that it's equal,” says Prof Sargent. “Even when you're 100 per cent online, my NBN might be much better than other people's. A boss might be less understanding of the pain points for a staff member working at home with personal or family responsibilities.”
There is also the mental health aspect for those experiencing intermittent lockdowns. For example, says Prof Sargent, a single person struggling with a sudden lack of human contact, in comparison with “somebody who has access to a close, connected family”.
And while there might have been an initial increase in productivity as workers changed rhythms, for groups such as women with younger children, this was likely not the case, says Prof Aseel.
“What we see still is that women take most responsibility for household tasks,” he says. “So, we actually see that they came out of the crisis with a productivity drop, and also with more stress, burnout, and mental health issues because they are basically running double shifts.”
“While I'm convinced that the whole flexibility and ability work from home will still be very much to the advantage of women, we need to be very cautious that we do not create a sort of a new dynamic that puts them at a disadvantage.” As Prof. Sargent points out, “the dynamics of the workplace will change when men also take time to care and more equally share the home responsibilities.”
How can businesses avoid divisions in a hybrid workplace?
One way to avoid unfair divisions or disadvantages within a hybrid model would be for teams to pick a day to come in and stick to it, says Prof Anseel.
“One move that could lead to a negative dynamic might be saying, 'Let's just leave it open and let people choose',” he says. "You will probably have women, people with disabilities, or even people that are more introverted opting to work from home. Then you have the more extroverted people, who are more self-promoting, going into the workplace.”
He suggests implementing the same days in the office at a team level guarantees not only regular manager facetime, but a chance to talk and bond as a team.
“During that time, of course, it's a very bad idea to go and sit within your office and do some focused work," Prof Anseel says. “You go into the office to meet people, to talk with them, to talk to clients, to have brainstorms and workshops.”
“I see the most potential in that model. It creates most opportunities for everyone, while still preserving the flexibility and the time to work from home.”
But Prof Anseel is cautious of taking research findings that workers with more face-to-face time at the office are more likely to be promoted over those who don't, as gospel. As he points out, much of this research is based upon pre-pandemic data. Perceptions towards those who opt to work from home may now have shifted significantly.
Tried and tested inclusivity practices still work in a hybrid workplace
Adapting a workplace to a hybrid model in an inclusive manner isn't just about implementing new practices like team office days. It's also about taking inclusion mechanisms you know worked in the old nine to five office model and adapting them to hybrid, like being an ally.
But as the pandemic continues, good inclusion practices such as meeting agendas, inclusive language, equal airtime, a focus on diversity groups throughout hiring and voice in decision making, are being left by the wayside, says Prof Sargent.
“While the whole idea of the 'ideal worker' has been debunked through the pandemic, we genuinely need to consider how we think about that face-to-face and online engagement. It's not either/or but both/and,” says Prof Sargent.
“Some of those inclusion practices might be having good systems and processes in place to have performance or career conversations or having regular interaction and engagement with staff so that they know what's going on and understand how they meaningfully contribute to the big picture.”
We already know how to create inclusive environments, she points out. Irrespective of whether we're online, hybrid, or face-to-face, those practices need to continue to be implemented and adapted thoughtfully.
This might be supporting hybrid meetings with an effective platform and rotating responsibility for monitoring the chat function to ensure written questions and contributions are recognised. And ask questions like, whose perspective isn't represented here? And as a leader, one needs to take this adaption seriously.
“It's not a tick-a-box,” Prof Sargent warns. “It's not diversity-washing (like greenwashing). You need to genuinely modify behaviours, talk with your team about it, and have those inclusion conversations as leaders, what investments do we need to make to be successful?”