After indefinitely postponing the return-to-office in September 2021, Microsoft recently announced that its Seattle and Silicon Valley facilities would fully reopen to employees at the end of February. Financial services company Wells Fargo announced that it would roll out a hybrid work model beginning in March. New York City mayor Eric Adams even joined the conversation, recently urging CEOs to bring workers back in-person. It's clear that many employers want people back in the office, but something to bear in mind as you consider your own return: The transition won't be smooth for everyone on your staff--least of all your underrepresented employees.
If given the option--in, say, hybrid workplaces--white male employees are more likely to work in-person than employees of color, female employees, and working mothers, according to a January study from Slack's research consortium, Future Forum. The researchers also note that proximity bias--that is, unconscious, preferential treatment shown to workers within closer physical proximity to bosses--may be more common than you think. As a result, those who remain remote may miss out on career opportunities and other benefits. The problems are amplified for diverse staffers, who already tend to get overlooked for advancement, as a result of systemic racism.
The ripple effects for an organization may be significant too. Research published by McKinsey in 2020 shows that diverse and equitable companies have more success recruiting talent, and they are more profitable than companies that don't meet the same diversity, equity, and inclusion standards. Especially during a labor shortage, it's in a leader's best interest to foster an environment where all employees are set up to succeed. Here's how:
Conduct a culture assessment
First, it's helpful to understand why an employee may not want to return to the office. Working parents may find that remote work helps them to better balance child care, and disabled employees may find that it better accommodates them. But a culture of discrimination might also lead marginalized workers to prefer their home to the office, says Natasha Bowman, DEI expert and founder of the New York City-based talent management firm Performance ReNew. "Think of all the employee disengagement due to things that aren't job related," she says. "You're met with a microaggression in the office, it sucks the air out of you, and you're not productive for the rest of the day."
If microaggressions--subtle and often unintentional discriminatory actions against a person of a marginalized group--sap employee productivity, they put an entire company at a disadvantage--which is why it's crucial for leaders to establish an environment of psychological safety, says Jalie Cohen, senior vice president of HR Americas at the global human resources firm the Adecco Group, which has a North American headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida. The best way to do that is by talking to your employees through a combination of regular one-on-ones, anonymous surveys, and third-party facilitated interviews, which can help build trust and give you an idea of your employees' needs and how to address them.
But don't rely on your employees to point out every single potential bias in your workplace, she adds: "Take the time to educate yourself on those communities, and understand their perspective." Then, try to eliminate biases to create an environment where employees can focus on their work instead of being drained by discrimination.
Invest in equitable tech
If you're shifting from a fully remote to a hybrid work environment, consider how your team can stay synced when some workers are in-person and others are remote, says Markita Jack, head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at San Francisco-based customer engagement software company Iterable.
She recommends software that helps both in-person and remote workers to better collaborate, beyond the standard Zoom meeting or Google Doc. "We do our goal planning in a suite called WorkBoard, where we're able to collaborate in documents and have conversations in real time," she says. "It's important to have access, but also accountability to make sure that people are able to contribute to meaningful work, instead of just saying, 'Hey, I'm gonna send this doc over for you to review and then you have to wait on me to respond.'" Jack also recommends the digital whiteboard software Miro.
Be an inclusive leader
When giving employees the opportunity to work remotely in a hybrid workplace, leaders need to be thoughtful about keeping all workers engaged, Cohen says, whether that means that everyone gets their voice heard in a meeting or that remote employees are offered the same opportunities as those in-person. "Inclusive environments don't happen accidentally," she says. "You have to be intentional in your actions." Working with a DEI expert to recognize ways your workplace might not be inclusive is a good step, Cohen adds.
And be open-minded, suggests Bowman. "Giving marginalized workers a little bit of flexibility helps to level the playing field," she says. "If you don't want to be a victim of the Great Resignation, you need to listen to your workers and understand their needs."