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Hybrid work can hurt or help DEI efforts. Here’s how to get it right

The shift to a hybrid wok environment offers a unique moment to help your whole team feel seen and heard.

Hybrid work can hurt or help DEI efforts. Here’s how to get it right
[Photo: alvarez/Getty Images]

Hybrid work, like remote work before it, is yet another source of dramatic change for businesses everywhere. But just because we’re leaping into a new way of working doesn’t mean that we’ll escape the dynamics that have shaped office work for decades.

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Hybrid can both accelerate old challenges and create new ones, especially when it comes to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). By taking a closer look at how power structures persist in this new environment, we can help ensure our companies not only avoid common DEI issues, but also use this moment to improve and build a better company culture.

With some effort and creativity, this transition offers a unique opportunity to build an environment in which–no matter where they’re working from–everyone feels seen, heard, and included. Here are some keys to seizing this moment.

Look out for proximity bias

Hybrid work is, ideally, the best of both in-person and remote work. But when it comes to DEI, hybrid work can also introduce new issues.

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Proximity bias—the tendency to look more favorably on the people we see more often—is perhaps one of the most pressing DEI-related challenges. Similar issues, like presenteeism and an inclination to favor those who feel most comfortable in a traditional office setting, are also likely to reemerge. All of these biases can mean that workers who put in more “face time” at the office are more likely to receive raises or promotions.

Setting up processes and structures to undermine these biases is important, because hybrid work will likely take a different shape for different employees. At companies where the hybrid model is flexible, some employees may opt for more work-from-home time, whether that’s due to commute length, childcare responsibilities, disability, working style, or simply wanting to avoid stressors at the office.

With different employees spending significantly different amounts of time in the office, being aware of proximity bias is key to avoiding serious threats to DEI progress as a company grows. Some have seen success with standardizing the number of days in the office per week, while others rotate who is in the office when, or institute consistent in-person check-ins between managers and employees. Whatever path you choose, it’s worth spending time training managers and early employees to recognize and resist this bias.

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The transition to hybrid is a great moment to reevaluate other biases, too. For instance, is it easier for extroverts to be heard in your company? Does your organization value certain communication styles over others, or take for granted that decisions will be made by particular people?

With so much conversation moving online, it’s easier than ever to analyze the resulting data. For example, if 50% of your organization is made up of women, but only 20% of Slack messages in company-wide channels are written by women, this may be worth investigating.

In this way, data can help your company use hybrid models to interrogate problematic aspects of company culture that may have gone unnoticed before.

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Clearly prioritize DEI from day one

From the perspectives of founders and leaders, there is a lot on people’s plates. Whether managing a transition to hybrid work or building a company from scratch remotely, many are spending their days navigating the logistics of building a company in a new way. But while jumping through these hoops, it is essential for long-term success that founders center DEI as a focus among the entire leadership team and find a way to communicate this across the company.

Empathy can play a big role here. The transition to hybrid work affects different employees in different ways, and employee listening can help drive an understanding of these nuances early on. Surveying employees (even when the team is still small) provides important data about concerns or points of friction, while showing employees they’re being heard. Since founders and leaders aren’t interacting with coworkers every day, it can be harder to spot an employee who is struggling or have a quick hallway conversation to gauge how they’re doing, which makes surveys more useful than ever.

No matter how well-intentioned leaders are, there will be bumps in the road. Vulnerability and authenticity are essential skills for building DEI into the fabric of any company. One of the most effective ways to show that DEI is a key leadership priority in hybrid work is to admit when a team is not quite getting it right.

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Being open about shortcomings, as well as transparent about the meaningful action you’ll take to do better, helps model the kinds of behavior you’ll expect from all employees. This lets teams know that you’re serious when it comes to taking the lead on these initiatives.

Create space for honest communication around personal health

One of hybrid work’s greatest promises is the chance to balance the benefits of remote work with the collaborative environment of the in-person office. One key benefit is simply the respite from the day-to-day office grind: commutes, uncomfortable work wear, the complex nuances of interacting with your office mates. Another benefit has been the breaking down of barriers between home and work life. Though this has created its share of difficulties–the feeling of being “always on,” the challenges of working from home while parenting–it’s also meant, for many people, the relief of being able to bring more of their authentic selves into the virtual workplace.

Suddenly, as we integrated the rhythms of work and home life, Zoom windows filled with cats perched on desktops or toddlers interrupting presentations with hungry stomachs. Remote workers were able to see an intimate side of their colleagues’ lives. When combined with the small and large tragedies of the coronavirus pandemic, this new dynamic has led to more frankness around mental health challenges at many companies. And a much more honest conversation about the need to foster mental well-being moving forward.

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This is something we should strive to bring with us from remote work into hybrid work. Burnout is still widespread. Even as vaccine rollouts continue, experts predict we’ll be dealing with the mental health fallout from the pandemic for years to come.

As we add the new routines of hybrid work into this mixture of circumstances, it’s crucial to put mental health and well-being front and center. This means actively creating space for employees to take the time they need to care for themselves, through generous leave policies and a culture that promotes actually making use of this leave. It also means fostering a sense of psychological safety between employees and their managers.

Building an organization that puts DEI at the center of its strategy isn’t just good for employee well-being or touting statistics; it’s also well-known benefit for bottom lines. There’s a strong, positive correlation between increased diversity and productivity, alongside growing evidence for a causal effect. So, it’s well worth putting efforts into being bold, creative, and thoughtful in the way we approach the issues of DEI as we continue to navigate a the relatively new model of hybrid work.

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Amanda Burr Xido is the editor-in-chief of Nomadic, a digital academy targeted toward leaders.

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