Whisper it quietly, but we’ve been lying to ourselves.
Wherever you look, you can see blogs and articles bigging up the benefits of hybrid working – flexibility, wellbeing, work-life balance, productivity and much much more. And we’ve congratulated ourselves on how forward-thinking we are, taking advantage of this new agile and flexible approach to working.
But if you look a bit more carefully, you can also find a growing voice of concern – we have begun to believe our own hype. Hybrid working is not as inclusive as we thought.
In the pandemic, we told ourselves that hybrid working was the way forward because we had no choice – we encouraged each other with positive outcomes attributed to hybrid working. We decided that hybrid was better for us, without any specific evidence. For a while we believed it and managed to convince ourselves that hybrid was easier, simpler and more effective.
And although Covid is still with us, most countries have removed, or at least relaxed, restrictions and we have space to examine whether hybrid is actually working for us or holding us back.
Is hybrid more inclusive?
We often hear that hybrid working is better for inclusion – it allows people to find a better work-life fit, it’s more accessible for people with certain mobility disabilities and reduces the financial pressure on getting to work. By reducing the importance of physical location, inclusive hybrid working can increase social mobility by allowing workers to live further from expensive business centers – usually in capital cities.
However, there is a significant downside. It is much easier to consciously exclude people in hybrid working. In an office environment, you can see co-workers meeting or socializing. A manager can see when team members are not included in conversations or activities. Hybrid working hides this away – harmful gossip, discriminatory jokes and comments, or cliques have moved to digital forms of communication and may not even use corporate networks, taking place on WhatsApp or other messaging platforms.
It’s not just deliberate exclusion that increases.
It’s much easier to overlook colleagues accidentally – it is much harder to build and develop new relationships, so we rely on ‘tried and tested’ networks – our natural instincts reinforce our preference for siloes. Research in 2022 showed that our networks have reduced by 50% compared to those built before hybrid working. There is a direct impact on inclusion – if you’re not in the ‘in-group’ network, your voice is heard less, your opinions count for less, you receive less credit and are valued less.
I recently worked with a head of department, Sally, who was a remote worker. She reported directly to the CEO of the company and frequently had to input into significant strategic issues in the organization. However, she discovered very quickly that her deputy, who was located in the same office as the CEO often put forward different opinions after the issue was resolved – and just as often the decision was reversed. Sally decided to leave the organization shortly afterwards.
Tech that loves to hate
We have also added a new form of inequality. In every office, there is always ‘that person’ – the one who is not on friendly terms with technology. Their computer crashes more often, they struggle to do routine tasks. In an office, they lead across the desk and ask someone to show them how to do what they need to do; in a co-located meeting, they can participate in full, they have IT support nearby and if the internet goes down, they know that professionals are working to fix it, rather than worrying that they have done something to break it.
The barrier of language
Inclusion is also damaged by the imperialism of the English language. Native speakers are more likely to be heard, more likely to be acknowledged and credited with creative ideas and solutions. Conversely, people speaking a second (or third) language are more likely to be overlooked, interrupted or not given time to make a point.
Hybrid communications significantly increases the barriers to equity of communication. Removing the verbal cues of face-to-face communication disproportionately hurts second language speakers. And to make matters worse, poor internet connections, cheap microphones and/or background noise all reduce the potential for mutual understanding, with second language speakers less likely to pick up meaning. Linguists have already highlighted the implicit bias that we associate fluency with intelligence – in a hybrid situation, we are much more likely to rate a first language speaker as more credible and trustworthy than someone with a ‘foreign’ accent.
While it is true that many people enjoy working from home and benefit from the reduced interruptions and distractions of an office, for many more, interaction with colleagues is the only contact with other people that some have. Humans are social animals and need regular contact with others to maintain mental health. Too many people feel isolated and lonely in hybrid teams – and even when they are working in the office, the reduced number of people around can emphasize that loneliness.
We know that the number of ‘accidental conversations’ has plummeted – we don’t bump into people in corridors as often. And this can cut us off from the social and professional grapevine – the informal news network, on which so many promotions and internal opportunities rely.
Harvey knew that Oriana was due to retire sometime during the year. She headed up a team doing similar work but for a different business unit. He was very keen to apply for the vacancy when she did. However, he only found out that she had retired when HR announced the appointment of her replacement – one of Harvey’s team, Sadia, had heard from a friend in HR and had applied even though the vacancy had only been advertised externally.
And we haven’t even started talking about the blurring of work and home life, expectation of ‘always online’ culture, FOMO (fear of missing out) and the challenge of inviting colleagues into our home life – a former colleague of mine was outed as gay to her colleagues completely unexpectedly, when they heard her and her partner having an ‘off-mic’ conversation when she thought she was muted.
The constant reminder of work stresses and challenges that a laptop in the corner represents has an impact on our ability to switch off and recharge – and for many people their sleep space and workspace are separated by a short step across the room!
We are beginning to see that inclusive hybrid working requires more effort to encourage collaboration, maintain and grow productivity and be truly inclusive, so here are a few suggestions that might help you get the inclusion part sorted as a great foundation to build the rest.
Firstly, be aware that the experience of hybrid working is not the same for everyone. Check in with your colleagues, asking how they are and being empathetic. We’ve all got used to virtual coffees and social chitchat at the start of meetings – but this is going further, particularly if you manager others. It may be time consuming but having regular catch ups with your teams is essential – and if possible, have a regular face to face team meeting: you could even schedule a couple of one to ones for the same day to make best use of the time.
We’re getting used to seeing people add their pronouns to the bottom of emails. However, for hybrid working, consider encouraging your team to add their working hours – when they intend to be online, making sure they update it each week. With hybrid working it’s not as clear what time zone people are in, or if they have switched to more convenient working hours. Putting your hours, particularly for part time workers makes it explicit when you are likely to be available for meetings and replies.
Importance of synchronous communication
To make team working more effective, as manager, you can ensure that there are a few hours each week when everyone is available at the same time for team updates – book it out each week even if you don’t actually go ahead with the meeting so that you know that synchronous conversations can happen if needed. This strategy helps tackle some of the silo-mentality by encouraging team members to come together regularly.
Dictate to cooperate
And our final tip – be a more directive facilitator of meetings. Informal meetings work best for the in-group and those with high fluency. Making meetings more formal may seem a step backwards in terms of progress, however, it means that you can have a formal agenda, giving everyone time to prepare and consider their points. It allows you, as chair to guide the conversation more forcefully to ensure that everyone can contribute.
In a more formal setting, the chair can demonstrate active listening, summarizing key points so that everyone has a clear understanding, and then can invite named others to comment, clarify, expand or disagree.
Inclusion is the key issue facing organizations in this decade – the pandemic restrictions uncovered some of the exclusive working practices that the privileged majority have overlooked. Hybrid working is here to stay and if we are to ensure that hybrid approaches are inclusive, we still have some work to do. The suggestions we have made here are a tiny start but can be part of the cultural shift we all need to make to get the most out of the opportunity that inclusive hybrid working brings.
WRITTEN BY MATTHEW MACLACHLAN
Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.
We’ve got over 28 years of experience supporting over 1 million people worldwide. We’re passionate about delivering change; how can we help you?