It’s been two years since the vast majority of people started working from home due to COVID-19. As we move into a more flexible future of work, a hybrid approach will be the new norm for many companies, including Google. At its core, this means bringing people back together in ways that can work for everyone—giving employees more choice and flexibility, while ensuring teams are being set up for success.
As hybrid work continues to gain popularity, companies must be mindful of the challenges it can present if not done inclusively. A recent survey found a strong preference for remote or hybrid work among employees of color, caregivers, and women. Working in the office shouldn’t overshadow the impact an employee makes wherever they may be. We have a responsibility to make sure every employee continues to feel included and has the same opportunity to advance as their colleagues who may be in the office more frequently.
At Google, we’ve learned some valuable lessons over the past two years about how to put flexibility and inclusion first in a hybrid work environment, while also improving productivity and collaboration. Three key themes have emerged from our research and experiences.
Build collaboration equity
Maintaining virtual connections will remain important as more companies embrace hybrid work long-term. In a hybrid workplace, it is imperative that teams build collaboration equity, in which all employees have the tools, access, and information they need to work together with their teams and be effective at their jobs. Here’s a few examples:
- Use interactive tools to boost inclusivity during discussions: Hybrid meetings don’t have to feel like two different conversations that happen in the room and remotely. Workplace tools can extend collaboration equity for everybody, regardless of location, role, experience level, language, or device preference. In January, Google Workspace launched Companion mode to give every meeting participant, no matter where they are, access to interactive features and controls like polls, in-meeting chat, hand raising, Q&A, live captions, and more. And Google Calendar gives you the ability to set your working location and denote how you’ll be joining the meeting (in-person or via Google Meet) for each day—helping you communicate your availability and expectations more effectively with your team.
- Ask for input at the start from those who are remote: Try beginning a meeting asking for input from folks who are not in the room first so they feel welcome to contribute to the conversation from the start.
- Make your meetings as accessible as possible: As a global company, we know collaboration equity means promoting accessibility and respecting colleagues’ work and personal schedules. This might mean giving everyone the option of asynchronous meetings, which can be recorded to allow employees in different time zones or with nontraditional work schedules to view them as their schedule allows. And companies can enable closed-captioning during meetings to include people who are hard of hearing or those with noisy workspaces.
Create infrastructure that encourages employees to support each other
As companies continue to become more distributed, it is critical to provide employees with the tools and support they need to build spaces where they can feel connected to others over a shared sense of identity. At Google, our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) bring together workers who share interests, backgrounds, or experiences, and provide a sense of community for employees to share their experiences as they navigate the changing work landscape in different ways.
To continue building community in a remote and hybrid environment, Google’s ERGs have hosted virtual yoga, career development sessions, and even global summits. One of the most significant ways one of our ERGs is building connections is also one of the simplest: Our Asian Google Network ERG created designated “office hours,” opportunities for Googlers to sign up for a time slot to talk with a peer about anything that’s on their mind in an open and safe space. These virtual office hours help employees across different schedules, locations, and work arrangements remain connected and have been adopted by other ERGs at Google because of their effectiveness in strengthening a support network.
Create flexible office spaces that accommodate everyone
As companies continue to develop hybrid work plans, they should lead with inclusive tools and behaviors to build new, creative ways for employees to be productive, connected, and collaborative from anywhere—especially the days when they are in the office.
For example, we’re experimenting with more flexible space types at some of our offices, featuring adaptable furniture and partitions that employees can adjust for focused individual work, collaboration, or a mix of both. Google also has a history of incorporating natural green spaces inside and around our offices, and as we redesign our offices over time for hybrid work, we’ll explore ways to offer more spaces to support employees looking to work outdoors instead of being inside an office all day.
The pandemic has certainly presented many uncertainties and challenges, but it has also presented an ongoing opportunity to make our workplaces more accessible and inclusive. And that opportunity is one we should all take seriously as a way to continue listening to, learning from, and supporting our employees to thrive.
Melonie Parker is Google’s chief diversity officer.