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Human Resources

Care is needed to ensure the hybrid office works for all

Published 20 December 2021 in Human Resources • 9 min read

Working from home has many advantages, but organizations need to ensure it does not lead to inequality and exclusion.

Variants of COVID-19 have roiled the plans that many companies had put in place for a “great return” to the office, but workplaces are nevertheless emerging into a new phase. Employers are bringing some employees back to shared spaces and asking others to remain working remotely, either for the time being or permanently. The digital communication tools that became lifelines for business during the pandemic have now become fully embedded into how work gets done across a large swath of industries. Investments in technology infrastructure to support a hybrid approach to work, where at least some people work from home at least part of the time, have become key priorities. At the same time, organizations are ever more aware (or at least should be) about the need to foster equity and inclusion, so that all employees can thrive and fully contribute in this new “normal”.

Remote and hybrid work could, in theory, benefit all workers and even foster diversity. For instance, it was reported in the Washington Post that working virtually provided many Black women a respite from microaggressions that occur in the physical office. Less time commuting frees up hours that can be spent on family responsibilities, enabling parents and other caregivers to more effectively manage their time. Leveraging virtual tools can ensure that employees with different physical abilities can contribute equally or remove barriers to speaking up in meetings. The list goes on, and multiple studies have demonstrated that remote work can lead to greater productivity, making it seem like a strategy that companies and workers alike should use to grow and develop.

If employers fail to be thoughtful about how to implement and manage hybrid work, employees’ gains may become eclipsed by career costs

But will the potential benefits of the hybrid workplace be realized for all? Research has repeatedly found that offsite workers tend to pay a promotion penalty; one recent analysis of five years of data  gathered through the UK’s Annual Population Survey found that workers who mainly worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted as other employees. If employers fail to be thoughtful about how to implement and manage hybrid work, employees’ gains may become eclipsed by career costs. Women of color could find that while working virtually improves their day-to-day experience, their employer fails to make sure they still get equal access to stretch assignments and mentoring, leaving them stuck at lower levels. Women overall are more likely than men to opt for remote work—though it is more accurate to say they are often compelled to do so because of the disproportionate caregiving burden that they shoulder—and thus more likely to pay the promotion penalty. All the progress toward gender and racial equity that companies have made is in danger of receding into the distance if we don’t examine how hybrid is really working. 

“Workers who mainly worked from home are less than half as likely to be promoted as other employees.”

Organizations don’t have to wait to find out how this new way of working could shape employee outcomes. Remote work was adopted on a massive scale in spring 2020, and the effects of those early pandemic days offer a glimpse into the risks of a future where remote work is fully integrated into our organizations. By seeing those risks clearly and taking steps to mitigate them, companies can craft a new normal that furthers rather than compromises their equity and inclusion goals. Take collaboration networks, a critical facet of work that has been deeply impacted by remote and hybrid models. Networks—the webs of connection that give us access to information and important resources—are a key determinant of an employee’s opportunity structure. How do our networks change as our relationships become less grounded in physical interaction? And do such changes matter for our careers? Data on changes in network structures from pandemic lockdown periods can help to answer this question, and the data we’ve studied suggest that the effects are not gender-equal.

A comparison of aggregated digital communication signals across various multi-national organizations before and after the initial lockdown showed how changes in patterns of remote work affected workers’ collaboration networks across different groups and levels of organizational hierarchy. The patterns revealed that going virtual had spurred significant changes. Across the board, networks became more homogeneous by level, tenure and gender. 

Senior employees of both genders tended to experience strengthened networks, but junior women saw their networks begin to erode, despite their activity levels increasing. In some instances, remote work also allowed new mid-level female influencers to emerge, but on the whole working remotely seemed to simultaneously help men build bonds and to make it harder for all but the most senior women to do the same.  

Does this kind of gender divide ultimately matter? Could it be that men and women working remotely are gravitating toward colleagues who share their gender, but continuing to move smoothly along their career paths? Other data suggest not, and indicate that this kind of network homogeneity could inhibit women’s careers if it continues. In a study undertaken by an academic medical center the internal networks of 345 surgical faculty members were analyzed over a three-month period. The dataset, which included over 1.6 million email interactions, revealed that both men and women tended to have more relationships with colleagues of the same gender, but the concentration was more pronounced among men, who also represented the largest share of senior faculty. Men had more relationships than women overall, and most of their relationships were with other men. The highest-ranking men (full professors) were the most likely to connect with more junior male than female colleagues. And while men represented 55% of the overall faculty, they made up 63% of “influencers” with high connectivity and clout. These patterns underscored a gender gap in career advancement, with women faculty’s progress lagging that of their male peers.

7 ways to strike the right balance 

Here is an essential checklist to help dismantle the barriers to diversity that are embedded in management processes: 

Homogeneous professional networks of current staff prevent qualified candidates from learning about open jobs. Language used to describe the job discourages some qualified applicants from applying.

What to do:  

Proactively seek candidates outside your existing networks and identify new recruiting pools.  

Audit language in job postings to identity and remove terms that trigger gendered assumptions about roles and types of work.

Conscious and unconscious biases in the hiring process lead to candidates being undervalued or overlooked.

What to do: 

Educate evaluators about various kinds of bias. Diversify your interview panels. Use screening tools that anonymize resumes. Assess a slate of candidates against objective criteria.

New employees who don’t share key social identities (gender, race, nationality, etc.) with the current team end up on the outskirts and miss out on the benefits of relationships. 

What to do: 

Find ways for people to work together toward shared, important goals and collaborate across difference. Create team-building social opportunities that everyone can participate in on equal footing.

Employees in the minority miss out on opportunities, receive insufficient feedback, and lack mentors and sponsors.

What to do:  

Audit how work assignments are made and stretch opportunities offered. Set expectations for managers and senior leaders to mentor and sponsor employees who are different from them and make sure succession planning prioritizes building a diverse leadership pipeline.

Inconsistent standards are applied to performance, and employees in the minority are held to a higher bar for advancement.

What to do: 

Develop objective, job-relevant, and measurable criteria for performance. Foster a culture where asking if bias is at play is encouraged and managers work together to overcome unconscious bias.

Systems for setting salaries, raises, and promotions are skewed by embedded bias that disadvantages employees in the minority.

What to do: 

Track and analyze your data to identify gaps in pay and rate of advancement. Make the processes for negotiating salary and going up for promotion transparent to all employees.

Employees in the minority exit, diminishing the diversity of your workforce.

What to do: 

Track and analyze data on attrition to identify patterns. Make clear to all employees that their wellbeing and job satisfaction matter; this includes ensuring workers who use flexibility options such as parental leave are not stigmatized as uncommitted.

“Both men and women tended to have more relationships with colleagues of the same gender”

What can companies do to prevent these kinds of hidden inequities as they move toward a future where remote work is fully blended into how we do business? The solution isn’t to reject a hybrid approach, but it’s critical that companies bring the same deliberation and care to ensuring equitable hybrid work as they bring to designing an approach that maximizes productivity and efficiency. The ongoing reconfiguration of work offers an opportunity for organizations to step back and reflect on their systems and processes. In surveying executive women for our recent book, Glass Half Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work, we found that the vast majority saw embedded gender bias as a continued barrier to women’s advancement across all aspects of people management, from hiring to compensation to promotion and retention. They told us that companies in their fields were not doing nearly enough to engage and retain women employees. Indeed, many recounted how they gradually became the only woman in the room as their female peers got stuck in middle management. Without attention, these patterns will persist and even worsen in the workplace of the future, but it is possible to leverage this moment of unprecedented transition to forge a different path.

It starts with taking a clear-eyed look at both formal processes and informal practices. The survey we conducted with executive women was carried out pre-pandemic, and revealed that core HR processes, such as interviewing, performance evaluation and promotion, were already skewed in ways that produced systematic disadvantages for people in the minority. In a world where these processes are being reshaped by digital tools, it’s more urgent than ever that companies understand how to mitigate and prevent these structural inequities. (This is why our book takes an action-oriented approach, linking the drivers of bias in seven key management processes with evidence-based measures to combat them.) At the same time, it’s never been more important for individual managers at all levels to practice inclusive leadership and ensure that the good intentions behind equitable policies and practices are carried out effectively. Network structures are a crucial intervention point for addressing both structural and cultural disparities, because differences in male and female networks can translate into differential access to opportunities.

Research has demonstrated that when diverse groups of employees collaborate on meaningful shared goals, connections deepen and people are able to appreciate and learn from one another’s different perspectives. However, fostering inclusion through meaningful connections requires more than just a reliance on virtual or in-person social events.  Social activities can encourage or spark bonds, but opportunities for substantive collaboration are key relationship building blocks. How managers treat employees also matters for people’s ability to build robust networks. Are only certain team members seen as “go-to” employees for important projects? Are the people receiving informal mentoring and advice those who look like their managers? These patterns send subtle (and not so subtle) messages about who is valued and worth knowing, which lead to some employees becoming isolated and others being seen as central to the most important work.

There has never been a more important time to step back and examine what’s really happening as people move through your organization. According to recently released researchone in three women in America has considered stepping out of the workforce or ratcheting back their careers in the past year, as compared to one in four women in early 2020. Hybrid offices have the potential to steer us back toward work environments that are truly inclusive and enable everyone to thrive or, alternatively, to widen gaps that are rolling back progress. It’s up to us to choose which future we want to create. 

Authors

Colleen Ammerman

Colleen Ammerman is Director of the Harvard Business School Gender Initiative and coauthor of Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work (Harvard Business Review Press 2021). 

Boris Groysberg

Boris Groysberg is Richard P. Chapman Professor of Businesses Administration at Harvard Business School, faculty affiliate at the HBS Gender Initiative, and coauthor of Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work. 

Manish Goel

Manish Goel is CEO and Cofounder at TrustSphere and an Advisory Board Member of SODI (Science of Diversity and Inclusion Initiative). 

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