Home » Remote, in-person or hybrid models: What do they mean for diversity, equity and inclusion? 

Remote, in-person or hybrid models: What do they mean for diversity, equity and inclusion? 

by Natasha Nicholson

Even as some COVID-19 restrictions lift and organizations look at shifting back to an in-person setting, adopting a hybrid model or going fully remote, the uncertain nature of the pandemic variants mandates a certain fluidity that can be tough to manage.  

It’s worth pausing to consider what we’ve learned so far. One lesson: In order for organizations to grow and thrive in this new world, a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) must be part of any workplace transition.  

To help you get there, we’ll look at some key implications that come along with remote, in-person and hybrid workplace settings, and specifically how each of these work models has both benefits and drawbacks related to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

For instance, a remote work model enables organizations to draw from a vastly more diverse pool of candidates. At the same time, in-person settings provide the opportunity for more equity and inclusivity, while hybrid settings make inclusivity at meetings a particular challenge. What must organizations consider and how can they reconcile this type of conflicting information? 

We’ll look at how regardless of the model an organization selects, the transition offers an opportunity for companies to reset their culture, and reframe their approach while putting DEI at the forefront of the decision-making process. 

The benefits and drawbacks of each model 

To start, the research on remote, hybrid, and in-person workplace settings as they relate to DEI is very mixed. For every plus, there seems to be a minus and new information continues to emerge. Taking what we know at this moment, let’s break down each model and examine how it supports or detracts from diversity, equity and inclusion. 

FULLY REMOTE 

Fully remote models have been with us for some time, but they were put to the test as never before with the onset of the pandemic. Perhaps among the most astonishing aspects was how nimble organizations could become when forced to adapt to the changing times. And employees were resilient as well. Research has shown that remote employees can be just as productive as their in-office counterparts. 

DEI benefits: Remote models enable organizations to hire a more diverse workforce, which has become a major draw for those seeking employment. And there are added benefits for underrepresented groups. Slack’s think tank Future Forum found that 97 percent of Black respondents said they preferred a fully remote or hybrid workplace, saying that working from home at least part of the time provides a respite from microaggressions, the need to “code switch” and other obstacles they face in office environments. And the lack of a commute provides relief for people with disabilities, which affects an estimated 25.5 million Americans, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. 

DEI drawbacks: Working remotely may offer relief for some, but looking at the big picture, it may further disconnect underrepresented groups. The separateness of remote work can be antithetical to inclusivity, making it much more difficult to form connections that support empathy, a key driver of a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment. And when harassment does happen, with no bystanders to provide support, events like microaggressions may be more likely to go unreported, creating lasting damage. 

IN-PERSON 

An in-person setting is the quintessentially traditional work model which is preferred as a standard by many organizations, some of whom value in-person employees so much that they are willing to pay them more than remote employees. It’s also a model that many organizations must use just by virtue of the type of product or service they provide.  

DEI benefits: Ideas for Leaders, a global business research curator, outlines research from Professor Richard Arvey, head of the Department of Management and Organization at National University of Singapore Business School where he describes how in-person interactions allow for people to better pick up on non-verbal behaviors (gestures, body language, tone of voice) that are vital to “the successful understanding and collaboration among team members of participants at a meeting.” Such collaboration is a key ingredient necessary to building a more inclusive environment that strengthens bonds and cultivates empathy. In-person environments also offer the possibility for more visibility and advancement, especially important for people in underrepresented groups, who may already feel ignored or unseen. 

DEI drawbacks: An in-person environment imposes a geographical constraint that limits the pool of talent from which an organization can draw. And there’s a snowball effect that follows. Nearly 80% of workers in a 2020 CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workforce Survey said that potential candidates want to work for a company that values diversity, equity and inclusion. Companies that struggle to hire a diverse workforce because of geographic constraints may end up on the losing end when it comes to gaining top talent. 

HYBRID 

According to research in a PwC report, It’s Time to Reimagine Where and How Work Will Get Done, which was highlighted by the Society for Human Resource Managers (SHRM), a hybrid environment is likely to be the new norm for 2021. 

DEI benefits: Perceived as flexible and responsive to individual needs, the hybrid model offers some benefits of remote and in-person settings. Commute times are limited, benefitting those who cannot afford to live near their work people with certain disabilities. But it also offers face-time which supports collaboration, inclusivity and advancement through increased visibility. According to Birgit Starmanns, Global Head of Thought Leadership Strategy and Programs at SAP, “When done well, hybrid remote work improves employee experience, increases workforce productivity, decreases the carbon footprint of commuting, and enables more inclusive and diverse organizations.” 

DEI drawbacks: While reaping some of the benefits of remote and in-person workplace settings, hybrid models may suffer from the negatives as well, essentially drawing from the worst of both models. And, there’s a drawback that’s unique to the hybrid setting. Aram Lulla, with the recruiting firm, Lucas Group, posits that “…the hybrid workplace is creating a new diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) challenge as different and potentially unequal categories emerge among employees: those who are in the office and those who are remote.” This inequality can play itself out as an inclusivity factor in meetings, connection to leadership and possibly even advancement in the organization. 

When done well, hybrid remote work improves employee experience, increases workforce productivity, decreases the carbon footprint of commuting, and enables more inclusive and diverse organizations. 

— Birgit Starmanns, Global Head of Thought Leadership Strategy and Programs, SAP 

DEI  
REMOTE 
IN-PERSON 
HYBRID 

Supports 

  • No commute may benefit underrepresented  groups  
  • Allows people to be their authentic selves, with less “code switch” 
  • Fewer microaggressions 
  • Maximum flexibility for those who need it most 
  • Easier to create inclusivity and support team-building 
  • Increased possibility for more equitable advancement 
  • In-person interactions can strengthen bonds and cultivate empathy 
  • Flexible and responsive to individual needs. 
  • Allows for benefits that are experienced by both remote and in-person situations. 

 

Detracts 

  • May make underrepresented  groups feel further disconnected 
  • Harassment may go unseen and unreported 
  • Underrepresented  groups may experience more microaggressions 
  • Limits the ability for organizations to draw from a diverse pool of candidates. 
  • May create an unequal environment 
  • Running meetings in a way that everyone is included can be complex 

 

The lessons and takeaways 

Now that we’ve looked at the benefits and drawbacks of each model, let’s look at some of the takeaways that we learned during the pandemic and how to apply them to any model your organization decides to choose.  

One major finding from McKinsey & Company is that remote and hybrid environments had an “equalizing effect” on the workplace environment. They cite these three related areas. 

Growing emphasis on the end product, giving an individual’s work a chance to shine. Leaders are no longer managing by proximity or constantly checking in to understand progress against deliverables. Instead, they are providing more clarity on expectations and due dates/timelines from the beginning, then evaluating the results ‘offline’ and providing feedback. This helps create a more level playing field for all. 

Eliminating the “head of the table” in meetings by making everyone an equal square on a screen, empowering people to speak and be heard. 

Increasing adoption of inclusive meeting norms to ensure that the right people are present and heard. For example, leaders are actively monitoring who is and isn’t sharing their point of view during meetings, then pinging ‘quiet’ participants to solicit their input. 

These takeaways can be translated to any setting by addressing these issues and asking the following questions about your workplace environment. 

  1. Providing opportunities for inclusivity and connections — Are you providing opportunities for everyone to feel included, whether they are in the office or not? For instance, while it’s easier to have a casual conversation in person, it is possible to make that happen in a remote setting if you provide the opportunity to do so. 
  2. Conducting diversity, equity and inclusion training — Have you provided training to address unconscious biases, recognize microaggressions and foster a better understanding of people whose identities are different from their own? Training for employees and managers is essential for any workplace model. 
  3. Ensuring equitable systems and processes — Do your hiring and advancement systems and processes align with your work environment? For instance, are any decisions around the advancement centered around being visible in the office, rather than accomplishing a result? If so, your remote employees may be excluded from the start. 
  4. Creating a safe environment — To support a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment, people must feel safe to share their feedback and ideas. They need to know they can do this without repercussions and that the input will be valued and acted upon. 

As organizations take the opportunity to assess their priorities during the next workplace transition, this is the chance to reconnect with employees and help them through this next vital challenge. With fresh eyes and an understanding of new possibilities, organizations have the opportunity to reimagine what it means to carve out a new future, where employees and their organizations can thrive, grow and succeed in a diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment.  

This article was originally published on HR.com

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