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How to make the hybrid workplace fair for all

Will in-office workers have an inherent advantage over their remote colleagues? This HR exec says companies must start preparing now for the new dynamic.

How to make the hybrid workplace fair for all
[Source photos: nensuria/iStock; boggy22/iStock]
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Office reopenings are gathering pace, and leaders are evaluating if they need a physical workspace. The increasingly popular hybrid work model, expected to be the norm post-pandemic, is a promising solution. The combination of in-person and remote working delivers the benefits of both options and grants employees the flexibility they have become accustomed to during the pandemic.

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For the hybrid model to be successful, leaders need to make a smooth transition. Managers will need to develop new skills and hone those acquired during the pandemic to lead effectively. One key consideration is fairness. With some workers in-person and others remote, leaders must ensure all employees have access to the same resources and opportunities. If not, some workers may feel excluded, causing disengagement, unhappiness or even employee turnover.

What is fairness in the hybrid workplace?

Workplace fairness is about providing a level playing field for all. It is fostering an inclusive environment in which leaders value remote and in-person workers alike, providing individuals with similar tools to do their job and allowing all employees to thrive. These tools can include access to reliable internet, hardware, workplace apps and ergonomic furniture. Many workers struggled with these when remote working was initially thrust upon them at the onset of the pandemic. With employees already returning to the office in some places, differences are almost inevitable.

In-person resources can be less tangible, such as the emotional support extended by colleagues and the benefit of casual office conversations that lead to big business decisions. In the absence of these perks, virtual workers can feel left out of the loop and disengaged. Hybrid working arrangements have the potential to exacerbate communication problems and power imbalances, and, in some situations, irrevocably damage relationships.

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Supervisors will have more frequent interactions with in-person staff and their efforts may be more easily noticed. The concern for remote employees is that their work will be diminished or overlooked in comparison. It is a delicate balance for leaders, and any disparity can have broad consequences for employee and business performance.

All workers have faced challenges during the pandemic, but it hit some especially hard. Working parents balanced home-schooling and remote working and, as a result, female professionals dropped out of the workplace at record rates. Unforgiving work schedules, competing demands and the overwhelming stress of the pandemic all were factors in these professionals leaving the workforce. Recruits and graduates were also challenged to navigate new workplaces without the traditional opportunities to learn organically or form relationships with colleagues. As we move to the next stage of the pandemic-era workplace, the onus is on corporate leaders to support these professionals as the workplace transforms.

Before moving to a hybrid model, business leaders need to ask themselves:

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  • Will remote staffers’ positive contributions go unnoticed?
  • Do all workers have access to the resources, tools and support needed to be successful?
  • Will in-person employees get preferential treatment?
  • Will remote workers have the same access to leadership?
  • Will in-person workers unfairly benefit from the casual interactions that can only happen in the office?

These questions can lay the foundation for a solid hybrid policy and ensure the system does not leave any employees behind.

How to ensure the workplace is fair

Creating a fair system for all employees will look different for every business, but some tactics are essential for all managers. Remote employees often work with minimal supervision, so leaders may be unaware of their workload, contributions or accomplishments. To counter this, managers must over communicate via video calls, instant messaging or phone calls. Replicating the casual interactions that take place in the office helps employees feel connected, leaders stay informed and personal connections develop.

The logistics of a hybrid workplace should be mapped-out with a strategy of fairness in mind. When implementing a rotating schedule, managers should formalize the structure in a policy available to all employees. This map—who works where and when—will help leaders identify imbalances in access to information, colleagues and resources, and assist in rebalancing the workplace. Although the physical location of certain employees will be defined by their role, some employees will be more interested in remote work than others. If an employee requests permanent remote or in-person work, leaders must carefully and objectively consider the implications. Of course, any strategy is adaptable and should be continually revised and updated to fit the company’s evolving needs.

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Leaders must also revisit standard workplace policies. Performance indicators, evaluations and reviews are examples of policies that may hold implicit bias towards in-person workers, giving them an unfair advantage. Businesses should adapt results-based performance reviews and goals to ensure workers on both sides of the divide are consistently evaluated. If anything, this can create an opportunity for companies to evolve their review process beyond managerial observations. Creating a level playing field for promotions will reduce the risk of employee allegations of unfairness.

As well as evaluating workplace policies, business leaders need to reflect on their skills, behavior and attitude toward all employees. Empathy is crucial, but managers need to take concrete steps to ensure equal treatment. All employees need different levels of support and communication. Recognizing these needs can be a challenge in a traditional workplace, so managers must monitor performance and feedback closely. Leaders should talk openly with teams, acknowledge the issues that hybridity can bring and gauge employee sentiment. With deliberate management, leaders can create a hybrid workplace that works for every employee.

The hybrid workplace may be here to stay for the foreseeable future, but there are numerous kinks to iron out. It may not be a perfect system, but it can provide an opportunity to return to a physical workspace while maintaining the flexibility and safety that has become the norm. Businesses cannot hope to design a successful hybrid model without considering equity for all. However, with fairness as a core component, hybridity can be a lasting solution that boosts employee happiness and drives business growth.

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Sarah Grimstead is regional vice president with Insperity, a leading provider of human resources and business performance solutions.