I know I may not be in the majority, but I’m excited to go back to the office. I’m looking forward to my morning bike ride in, to those serendipitous moments of connection in the office kitchen, to the staff social event, and to getting off Zoom, at least a little.
But I’m also conscious going back won’t be like it was before. My company’s new normal will involve some sort of hybrid model, with most people doing a mix of remote and in-person work. We’re not the only ones: Just under half of U.S. companies are planning on adopting the same model. While I’m excited to re-embrace those pieces of office life I’ve missed, I’m also aware we need to rethink how we work to make sure fairness is top of mind. It’s very possible that a hybrid model could, in a worst-case scenario, favor one group over the other. For instance, in-office workers are more likely to earn promotions, while at-home workers enjoy the perk of not commuting and get an average of 54 minutes back from their days. But I’m hopeful we can find a way to make teams, wherever and however they’re working, feel appreciated.
As a former engineer, I’m admittedly predisposed to love systems and procedure, but I do think for any leader, you can’t leave fairness up to chance. Having had a partially hybrid workforce prior to COVID-19, we’ve had some practice implementing policies to address the imbalances between in-office and remote workers.
Some worked, some didn’t, but one thing we confirmed along the way is it takes planning, effort, and intention to hit that equilibrium. Here’s what we’ve learned about hybrid office fairness so far.
Harnessing the science of fairness
Systems help eliminate bias and level the playing field for all employees: standardizing success in a clear, measurable way makes it harder for subconscious preferences to sneak into the evaluation process.
It’s the reason why at Later, my social media scheduling company, we don’t negotiate on salary. Everyone knows what the pay is for a particular role, but measuring how and when someone should get promoted was a challenge. One way we tried to engineer fairness into the promotion process was through the creation of scorecards.
The first iteration didn’t work: They were too focused on years of experience, and that didn’t reward workers who were growing at a faster pace. So we pivoted. Instead, employees and managers worked together to set out explicit, measurable criteria that’s evaluated every six months. So far, this tweak has resulted in a more balanced roster of promotions, with people from all levels, working both in the office and remotely, receiving their due.
An important part of engineering workplace fairness is experimentation. Allow yourself to make mistakes; don’t be complacent. For example, we thought offering Zoom town hall meetings would help include our work-from-home team in the experience. But it turned out, even though our remote employees were seeing the presentation, they were missing out on the side conversations and back-and-forth exchanges happening off camera.
One employee suggested the presenter log in to Zoom from a private room, to be on the same level or have the same experience as remote employees. It worked incredibly well as a fix for proximity bias that also put communication on one accessible playing field. If we weren’t open to trying new ways of working, we wouldn’t have gotten there.
Individual and team interests differ
Though we may be moving into an era of individualism at the office through more accommodations to workers’ specific needs, executives are still running businesses. Yes, our employees’ happiness is important and directly impacts return on investment and productivity, but individualism has to be balanced with the overall benefit of the company.
This means not everybody gets to do what they want all the time. There have to be benchmarks to give direction over chaos. For instance, we switched up our team-wide meetings to accommodate different time zones. Some weeks, the east coast is going to have a more convenient time, and some weeks, the west coast benefits. The cost of fairness is sometimes things go your way, and sometimes they don’t.
If everyone worked whatever hours they wanted with no formalization, how would you know when to book a meeting? Leaders need to find that balance of giving freedom and autonomy where they can, but not at the expense of the wider team.
A little face time goes a long way
As tempting as it might be to let people do as they please (one study showed 96% of employees say they need flexibility), the reality is for some people, and for some kinds of work, in-person meetings are essential. Studies show colleague relationships are weaker and communication suffers when people interact primarily over virtual media. Even just a few hours a week or every other week of in-person interactions can build the kinds of relationships that online just can’t . . . and those human interactions can be foundation setting.
Face-to-face requests are 34 times more effective than those done over email, and 85% of people believe they build more meaningful business relationships during in-person events. For the good of the company, we need to maintain in-person interactions at least some of the time, even if it means an inconvenient bus trip for a few individuals.
If you get the equilibrium right, the flexibility of a hybrid workplace can alleviate some of the disadvantages of a strict in-office environment, such as commuting time and childcare demands. However, we’re still discovering our biases and more importantly learning how to preserve culture without full in-office conformity.
For leaders, it’s important to cut ourselves some slack: We’re not going to get it perfect right away. With a combination of surveying our teams and observing behaviors and results, we’ll tweak and revise to find the calibration that serves in-person and remote teams in equal measure.