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Human Resources

Care is needed to ensure the hybrid office works for all

IbyIMD+ Published 20 December 2021 in Human Resources • 9 min read

Working from home has many advantages, but organizations need to ensure it does not lead to inequality and exclusion.

Variants of COVID-19 have roiled the plans that many companies had put in place for a “great return” to the office, but workplaces are nevertheless emerging into a new phase. Employers are bringing some employees back to shared spaces and asking others to remain working remotely, either for the time being or permanently. The digital communication tools that became lifelines for business during the pandemic have now become fully embedded into how work gets done across a large swath of industries. Investments in technology infrastructure to support a hybrid approach to work, where at least some people work from home at least part of the time, have become key priorities. At the same time, organizations are ever more aware (or at least should be) about the need to foster equity and inclusion, so that all employees can thrive and fully contribute in this new “normal”.

Remote and hybrid work could, in theory, benefit all workers and even foster diversity. For instance, it was reported in the Washington Post that working virtually provided many Black women a respite from microaggressions that occur in the physical office. Less time commuting frees up hours that can be spent on family responsibilities, enabling parents and other caregivers to more effectively manage their time. Leveraging virtual tools can ensure that employees with different physical abilities can contribute equally or remove barriers to speaking up in meetings. The list goes on, and multiple studies have demonstrated that remote work can lead to greater productivity, making it seem like a strategy that companies and workers alike should use to grow and develop.

If employers fail to be thoughtful about how to implement and manage hybrid work, employees’ gains may become eclipsed by career costs

But will the potential benefits of the hybrid workplace be realized for all? Research has repeatedly found that offsite workers tend to pay a promotion penalty; one recent analysis of five years of data  gathered through the UK’s Annual Population Survey found that workers who mainly worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted as other employees. If employers fail to be thoughtful about how to implement and manage hybrid work, employees’ gains may become eclipsed by career costs. Women of color could find that while working virtually improves their day-to-day experience, their employer fails to make sure they still get equal access to stretch assignments and mentoring, leaving them stuck at lower levels. Women overall are more likely than men to opt for remote work—though it is more accurate to say they are often compelled to do so because of the disproportionate caregiving burden that they shoulder—and thus more likely to pay the promotion penalty. All the progress toward gender and racial equity that companies have made is in danger of receding into the distance if we don’t examine how hybrid is really working. 

“Workers who mainly worked from home are less than half as likely to be promoted as other employees.”

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