Transitioning from an all in-office organization to an all-or hybrid-remote organization is not as easy as the pandemic may have made it seem. In 2020, employers asked workers to “power through” and keep working even as illness and national stay-at-home orders turned their employees’ lives upside down. To the surprise of many, most workers were more productive working from home. Now, those same employers are saying, “The pandemic is over! Come back to the office full-time just like you always did,” but employees are replying, “Not so fast.”
Study after study shows that most workers want some version of the remote work they’ve experienced even if they must return to an office. The result is that many employers are now considering hybrid workforce models. While “hybrid” might sound like the perfect compromise between work from office (WFO) and work from home (WFH) models, a successful transition requires intentionality and an emphasis on equity in the work environment.
Equality and equity are not synonymous, nor do they serve the same purpose. The Annie E. Casey Foundation defines equality as “[ensuring] that everyone gets the same things in order to enjoy full, healthy lives.” The push for equality in the workplace opened doors for many marginalized people to enter the workforce over the last several decades. While it created equal access to the door, it did not ensure equity.
By contrast, equity acknowledges that every person has a different starting line and set of circumstances that affect their ability to open or stay inside the door. Thus, equality without equity is just window dressing.
The pandemic put the lack of equity squarely into focus by surfacing issues including:
- Limited broadband access
- Disparate racial health impacts
- The importance of mental health and limited access to it
- How the caretaking crunch in the U.S. predominantly falls on women’s shoulders
It showed how deeply intertwined these issues are and their intersection with the “work world.” Employers who only think of equality without equity may run into:
- Legal challenges
- Negatively affected company culture
- Losing out on top talent
Without an intentional approach to workplace transition, leaders risk instituting arbitrary reasons for either WFO or WFH policies. Employees will quickly see through their veneer and cry foul. For example, companies that compensate WFO employees differently from WFH employees could face lawsuits challenging the policy.
High-performing organizations make strategic business decisions based on customer feedback, product innovation, and other factors. That same level of intentionality should apply to the decisions surrounding operating fully remote or remote hybrid. Such organizations will ask probing questions to challenge their own beliefs. For example, “Do teams NEED to meet in person?” Or “Do some senior staff falsely believe that seeing someone in person means they are performing their jobs?”
In addition, objectively examine your output and employees’ overall productivity. Ask employees their opinions about the pain points and advantages of WFO and WFH. Incorporate your findings into your decision-making rather than clinging to the notion that remote work doesn’t work. Whether or not an organization ultimately goes hybrid or fully remote, leaders must avoid simply reverting to “the way we’ve always done it.”
Avoid Seniority Based WFH Policies
Some employers base their WFO or WFH designations on their staff’s seniority with the organization. While on the surface, it may seem “fair and equitable” to allow WFH based on seniority, it is sadly far from it. For example, consider two people with the same job description and responsibilities; is it fair that the employee with eight years of tenure must WFO, but the other with an eleven-year tenure has the option to WFH? What about a person who has worked for the organization for 15 years where part of their job is fulfilling customer orders onsite vs. a person who worked for the same organization for five years yet performs all their work using cloud-based software?
Do either of these scenarios seem “fair?”
In addition to workers feeling slighted, it could lead to decreases in performance and contributions to a toxic work culture. They could also have valid legal arguments that they were being treated unfairly. The only fair and equitable way to determine “remote work eligibility” is by job function, regardless of the individual who is working in that job or the person’s tenure with the organization.
Us vs. Them Cultures
A lack of intentionality in your hybrid model can easily lead to an “us vs. them” culture—such as those of “us” in the office vs. “them” working remotely. This is especially problematic if leadership primarily works from the office.
In that scenario, leaders may inadvertently treat employees who WFH differently – unintentionally leaving them out of meetings or hallway conversations, making them less visible, and potentially viewed as not as dedicated or high-performing – even if all of the objective data proves otherwise.
Employees who WFH may also develop a “fear of missing out” (#FOMO) or may feel like an afterthought. Employees who choose to work remotely risk being left out of decision-making, feel resentful of those in the office, and passed over for positions. This divided culture will hamper company growth and could lead talent to walk out the door.
Undermining Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Initiatives
A McKinsey study discussed how the stresses and disruptions caused by the pandemic could lead about two million women to exit the workforce or take a leave of absence. The study also highlighted the higher rates of women leaving the workplace as compared to men.
“Meanwhile, Black women already faced more barriers to advancement than most other employees. Today they’re also coping with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community,” according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020. These facts represent significant examples of the societal equity issues that employers should consider when drafting remote work policies. Furthermore, according to the Institute on Aging, “upwards of 75% of all caregivers are female, and may spend as much as 50% more time providing care than males.” That is significant because, according to the Pew Research Center, “Women are more likely than men to adjust their careers for family. While women represent nearly 50% of the U.S. workforce, they still devote more time than men on average to housework and child care.”
Statistically speaking, this means there is a strong likelihood that more women employees will require a remote work option than men. Playing this scenario out over the long-term, as more women need or are forced to choose remote work (or no work at all), the result will be fewer women in the overall workforce and even fewer advancing in their careers.
Overall, organizations must recognize the disparities and challenges within their workforce and intentionally work to equalize the playing field if they want to ensure diverse and inclusive cultures.
Steps Toward a Successful Hybrid Workforce
For organizations to successfully transition to fully remote or hybrid remote, there must be purpose, intentionality, and thoughtful reasoning. Managing based on “butts in seats” will not increase your employees’ productivity. Instead, focus on strong performance management programs that are inclusive of hybrid or remote models.
For a hybrid-remote workforce to be successful, leaders must model a hybrid culture. They must both visibly and verbally embrace WFH and must intentionally balance WFO and WFH efforts. Continuing to WFO every day will undermine the positives of a hybrid culture and will foster the #FOMO of remote employees as people fear “missing” their time with the boss. Not only will leaders who WFO degrade the culture and undermine the effort, but it will also send the wrong message to top talent, making it harder to retain them. Ultimately, for hybrid and remote workforces to be successful, leaders need to walk the talk.
Hybrid work models can be a successful bridge between remote and in person work. When instituted intentionally by thoughtful leaders who fully embrace the model, employees experience flexibility in their scheduling, reduced commuting time, more time with their families, and more focused collaborative interactions. In turn, employers get engaged, recharged, more productive employees who feel a sense of equality and purpose because their organizations have instituted equitable policies.
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About the Authors
With 20 years of experience in employment law, contracts, corporate governance, human resources, risk management, and corporate ethics, Rae Ann is Achurch Consulting’s legal advisor and leader of Remote Workforce Consulting initiatives. As an experienced attorney and operations leader, she leverages her managerial knowledge and experience to help businesses, non-profits, and entrepreneurs balance their business needs with legal requirements.
Maria is an experienced attorney who is a legal advisor working on remote workforce and other initiatives at Achurch Consulting. She enjoys finding creative solutions to client problems and uses the breadth of her experience to view situations from multiple angles to find the right approach for each client.