Is hybrid working helpful – or harmful – for inclusion?  

Is hybrid working helpful – or harmful – for inclusion?  

Hybrid working is here to stay. Research by the CIPD in 2023 showed that 83% of UK organisations offer hybrid working, and ONS data suggests that 44% of employees work from home at least some of the time.  

Unsurprisingly, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach: some people love the ability to work at home regularly, others prefer being in the office more regularly.  

In part, this is because the consequences of hybrid working weigh differently on different people. It’s the same workplace, but different people can experience it in very different ways depending on who they are, their working preferences, their level of experience, wider commitments and life circumstances, and what they’re looking for from their work. 

But what does this mean for your organisation’s approach to diversity, equality and inclusion?  

Is hybrid working helping – or hurting – your efforts to create a fair and inclusive culture? 

To be honest, the jury’s still out, and we think it will be for some time. For many organisations, their hybrid working policy has been overly focussed on determining the ‘magic number’ of days that employees should be in the office. Perhaps this is to be expected: it’s easier to come up with these kinds of input-based requirements than it is to examine more nuanced aspects, such as the unintended consequences for their people. 

It’s a mixed picture 

If you’ve not yet considered how hybrid working is impacting inclusion in your business, we’d strongly recommend you put it on your agenda. For most organisations, hybrid working cuts both ways. For some, working from home can have a net positive impact, enabling them to have more control of their non-work time and how they spend it. In a McKinsey study, LGBQ+ employees were 13% more likely to prefer hybrid work than their heterosexual peers; for disabled people, the increase was 11% higher than their non-disabled colleagues.  

But hybrid and remote working also have the potential to create or worsen uneven playing fields, for example, in internal promotion processes or how information is communicated. Overall, it’s a mixed picture, and one that you need to examine for your organisation.  

Inclusion benefits of hybrid working 

The potential benefits of hybrid (and remote) working include: 

  • Hybrid and remote working can improve access and inclusion, reducing geographical barriers to work and providing opportunities for a more inclusive workforce. By moving to a remote-first model, with three face-to-face events per year, UK charity RNID has been able to recruit a workforce which is not just more diverse, but also more integrated in the communities it serves across the country. 
  • Hybrid working can support a better work-life balance, enabling employees to reduce commuting time and redirect this to other commitments. This flexibility often particularly supports those with caring responsibilities, but is also often appreciated by younger people and others. 
  • Hybrid working, in particular online meetings and workshops, enables and encourages collaboration between colleagues in different locations, increasing diversity of thought and providing more opportunity to hear different perspectives and ideas. 

Potential drawbacks of hybrid working on inclusion 

The potential drawbacks of hybrid (and remote) working include: 

  • Access to hybrid working is unlikely to be equitable: not all jobs can be done from home, and it’s possible that this will proportionately impact underrepresented groups. For example, a US study prior to Covid found that Latinx and Black workers had less ability to work from home (16% and 19%, respectively, compared to white and Asian workers (30% and 37%).  
  • Moreover, even if the role allows it, not everyone has a home environment that’s conducive to working, be that due to lack of space, equipment or unreliable internet access. 
  • Hybrid working can make it harder to build strong interpersonal relationships, increasing feelings of isolation or exclusion, or amplifying ‘in-group’ vs ‘out-group dynamics. The opportunity for chance encounters or general chitchat is reduced, which can be particularly hard for those new in their role. 
  • Communication can be more difficult in a virtual environment, as we’re less adept at reading non-verbal cues. This can lead to more misunderstandings or greater unconscious bias, which in turn negatively impacts inclusion.  
  • There may be greater risk of people being treated differently, depending on how often they’re in the physical workplace, potentially affecting work allocation, career development and progression. 

Next steps 

It’s worth considering how these consequences – and others – may be playing out in your organisation. If you’re not sure, ask your people. Interestingly, the CIPD study referenced above found that employers tended to be more worried about inclusion risks than their people were (39% of employers were concerned, as compared to just 20% of employees). Of course, this is likely to vary in your organisation, and might also change over time. 

If you’re not sure where to start, let us know. We’ve been supporting clients to determine and iterate their approach to hybrid working, such that it accelerates and supports their broader cultural intentions including those linked to diversity, equality and inclusion. Do get in touch: we’d love to hear from you. 

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