Is hybrid working creating a two-tier system? How to stop divides between employees

Do you remember the good old days, back when we were all expected to go into the office every day? When the mere mention of the phrase 'hybrid working' would result in bemused looks?

Is hybrid working creating a two-tier system? How to stop divides between employees

Do you remember the good old days, back when we were all expected to go into the office every day? When the mere mention of the phrase ‘hybrid working’ would result in bemused looks? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a rapid reformulation of society, and the business world hasn’t been excused from this. Companies were forced to shift from a ‘traditional’ office-based model to being completely remote, overnight. Despite the unfortunate circumstances, the move didn’t come without its advantages. Offices can be loud places, and many found that their day became much more flexible without having to commute. 

However, going completely remote wouldn’t be a long-term answer either. Humans are social beings, and home-work often left many with feelings of isolation and introduced new communication issues. As such, many believe that hybrid working ‘ where workers split their time working remotely, and being based in the office ‘ represents the Goldilocks option.

However, every choice has unforeseen consequences, and there is a very real chance that this reality could drive inequality.

Why work from home?

For most of us, the appeal of working from home can be attributed to four factors: an improved work-life balance, increased productivity and better focus, a reduction in stress and the ability to avoid commuting. Research has shown that that the concept of working flexibly is so attractive that nearly one in three of us would choose it over receiving a pay rise, with more than 80% believing that it’d make a job more attractive. 

There are also benefits for employers. Not only are  staff more productive, but companies can also save on property costs (with Hubble research showing that the UK may only need 34% of its office space under widespread flexible working) and expand their potential talent pool beyond their headquartered city.

Why this might produce unequal outcomes

While some of this allure is universal, the ability to work from home will be more appealing to certain groups. For example, those with a caregiving responsibility or a young child will enjoy being able to fit childcare around their work life ‘ something which is easier to achieve when not on a restrictive 9-5 schedule. Furthermore, those who might not suit the physical office ‘ for example those with a physical disability or anxiety disorder ‘ will choose to work from home more.

While this isn’t an issue in itself, it does reduce the ability of companies to create diverse workforces, especially at senior levels. Studies have shown that workers who operate remotely weren’t rewarded with promotions at the same rate as their in-office counterparts, even if they were more productive. Many see visibility at work as a sign of commitment to a job and company, and office-based workers will be subconsciously judged as working harder, giving themselves a leg up when it comes to progression. 

It can also be argued that not being in the office means that people are unable to develop the interpersonal and relationship building skills needed for management, and miss out on broader more informal networking. This was something we found in our own research, which showed that 54% of workers found it difficult to build relationships with colleagues while working from home. As such, people who may tend to work from home more could find themselves hitting a glass ceiling.

Avoiding a two-tiered system

To avoid this, firms need to rethink how they monitor success. Rather than using subjective measurements, they’ll need to adopt an evidence-based approach backed up by hard metrics. This will prevent organisations from promoting visibility rather than production. Regular check-ins and feedback sessions should also be scheduled to ensure that flexible workers aren’t missing out on their professional development. Managers also need to be re-educated to work in harmony with the new system, so that they understand how to manage without causing burnout or impeding on private space. 

While you should definitely take the opportunity to make the office space nicer, you must also remain mindful that anything too extravagant might suggest that you prefer members of the team to be physically present. Ideally, you want to create a functional space that people enjoy working in, rather than force staff back into the office for the sake of being physically present (or attempting to lure them in with perks like snacks and ping pong tables). Further, using a virtual workspace hub can help to cultivate a feeling of belonging by providing a platform for workers to stay in touch on a relaxed basis, helping to replicate the ‘water-cooler’ conversation that takes place in the office.

By doing this, you can help to ensure that your company gets the most out of hybrid working. 

Marcus Thornley
Marcus Thornley

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