Hybrid work can work for everyone

Toronto Star| March 12, 2022
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As we exit the fourth wave of lockdown, many professionals anxiously await details on what their future of work will look like. Some are eager for an office-heavy return in hopes of reinstating pre-pandemic normalcy. Others could not imagine a less desirable scenario.

It’s a complex situation for companies to navigate, and the decision carries many business opportunities and risks. What masquerades as a superficial matter of employee preferences carries domino implications to the bottom line. Everything ranging from future productivity, engagement, retention and access to talent to employee safety and, of course, equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) are at stake.

Our workplaces and work practices have benefited some groups of people at the undeniable exclusion of others. We’ve observed, we’ve learned, and now it’s time to redesign. We are offered a once-in-a-generation opportunity to update our operating systems and reinvent workplaces to better suit the needs of today’s diverse workforce.

Whether fully remote, hybrid or in-person, each model poses risks to the hard-won gains made toward greater EDI. An office-heavy return could incite a surge of resignations from diverse professionals, particularly women and caregivers who desperately need the flexibility, as well as professionals from marginalized groups who are reluctant to return to a workplace that, pre-pandemic, left them exposed to harassment, bias and microaggressions.

Meanwhile, a fully remote or hybrid model risks stalling the careers of these groups of employees who opt to take advantage of the flexibility and remote work if we don’t have equity-enforcing systems in place. If hiring and promotion decisions are made based on visibility or through informal relationships, remote workers will be at a disadvantage.

How can we design a long-term, hybrid work model that increases EDI in Canadian workplaces? Think about who has been marginalized, excluded or disadvantaged by our traditional ways of working, and design for them. A flexible hybrid model is a favourable choice as it gives employees the option to choose what works best for them. It’s also the most complicated to get right. And even more pressing — how do we ensure this new operating model does not recreate or further entrench existing inequalities, especially for women and marginalized groups?

Take a people-first approach

Collaborate with your employees to determine what model works best for them. Identify the downsides and provide employees with the tools and workflows they need to be successful both at home and in the office. Casual chats or informal and impromptu networking can help employees feel connected, but are much harder to come by in hybrid work contexts. How can you leverage technology, inject active community-building initiatives or adjust workflows to sustain a healthy workplace culture?

Increase flexibility and clarify expectations for work hours and collaboration

Flexible work is an established tool to support gender equity, recruitment and retention. Consider a “core hours” model of work scheduling, where employees are available to collaborate with one another while also allowing them to navigate their schedules and better control their work hours. What work can be done asynchronously? This approach can also help ensure that whether or not employees work remotely, there is opportunity for collaboration alongside flexibility, and all employees can benefit from increased autonomy.

Revamp your advancement policies and practices

Examine and revise promotion criteria to reduce reliance on visibility. Consider an “opt-out” model for promotions, where qualified individuals are considered by default for new opportunities and can choose not to participate rather than being required to self-select into competitions. According to a recent study, such an approach increased women’s participation in promotion opportunities by 28 per cent. This model helps to ensure that remote workers are not penalized through reduced access to face-to-face interactions, and can dramatically reduce gender gaps in promotion competitions.

Hybrid workplaces are not a panacea for resolving workplace inequity, but neither do they have to erode the gains that have been made so far for developing equitable, diverse and inclusive work environments. Designing and refining your company’s work model should be an iterative and responsive process. Centring equity, diversity and inclusion in their long-term models and adopting a people-first, outcome-based approach will provide companies with the agility and resiliency needed to weather future challenges.

What is your reaction to the fact that the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women will be chaired by a man?