Remote work is like the proverbial genie in the bottle. The pandemic helped unleash it into our modern workplaces. And now, hybrid work is here to stay for the long haul. Although it has many benefits, maintaining a hybrid workforce can also worsen existing challenges within your organisation. Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIB) is a case in point. In this article, we will look at the why’s and how’s of promoting inclusion and belonging in hybrid workplaces in the UK.

Diversity and inclusion: meaning in the British context

Although the broad principles of DIB have universal application around the world, the actual objectives can vary significantly. They are driven by the unique social, cultural and historic contexts in each region.

For instance, race, gender and sexuality are a priority for organisations seeking DIB affirmation in the United States. The situation in the UK is similar, with a 2022 survey from Indeed finding that 57% of senior managers and 60% of HR decision-makers say diversity and inclusion is important to them.

According to the employees surveyed by Indeed, the top three factors that would have the greatest impact on DEI are allyship programmes (65%), mentorship programmes (64%) and a diversity and inclusion taskforce (58%).

Employers and employees share largely similar ideas regarding the meaning of DEI in the workplace, with employers picking the same top three factors.

Dissecting the demand for hybrid work among employees

The demand for hybrid work is not uniform among all employees. According to a highly illuminating study by McKinsey on the topic, cohorts of employees who face higher risk of discrimination in the workplace are more likely to give preference for hybrid work/remote work.

Non-binary employees were 14% more likely to prefer working remotely, while for people with disabilities, the figure was around 11%. And LGBTQ employees preferred it 13% more than their heterosexual colleagues.

A possible reason for this trend may be the additional pressure individuals from such groups face in the workplace, especially if they are forced to hide their identities to avoid stigma. Microaggressions and outright harassment from co-workers and managers are also major reasons. 

Women are another key demographic who face such issues and show a greater preference for working from home. Given the burden society places on women in duties like child care, they are more likely to enjoy the greatest gain in work-life balance improvements from hybrid arrangements.

Steps to ensure inclusion and belonging in a hybrid workplace

In a 2023 report released by Greenhouse, 47% of UK workers said they prefer a hybrid working model, making this the most preferred approach to work. According to the McKinsey study, employees from traditionally underrepresented groups have a greater preference for remote work than their peers.

Hasty or ill-informed decisions regarding the allocation of remote workdays by managers can quickly lead to discontent and feelings of injustice among employees. Fears of proximity bias can also cause considerable stress among people who get more time away from the office.

Leaders at hybrid workplaces should include the following steps in their decision-making process to make it more transparent and inclusive:

Respect employee preferences

Managers need to take employee preferences and motives into consideration while handling the allocation of fully remote roles, or the duration of work-from-home for hybrid roles. Instead of looking purely at the professional content, due importance must be given to the personal context. Creating a supportive environment where women, working parents, and members of the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities can put forward their preferences would be a great first step. 

Understand the fallacy of proximity bias

One potential pitfall of hybrid working arrangements is proximity bias. According to the Harvard Business Review, managers have a tendency to give preferential treatment to employees who work from the office. This is usually based on the outdated assumption that remote workers are less productive. On the contrary, Gartner surveys indicate that productivity increased by 36% among employees when they worked remotely. To eliminate this assumption, it is important for employers to establish a culture of trust and transparency.

Promote informal communications

Remote workers often lose out on serendipitous interactions with their colleagues and managers. The audiovisual cues that an employee gives off during these interactions could let others know if the employee is in any kind of distress. To address this, managers can prioritise frequent direct communications to check in with remote employees, either through video chat or during their allocated office days.

Try to decentralise hybrid work

Strict top-down models of decision-making can undermine DIB efforts in hybrid workplaces. Instead of managers unilaterally taking decisions regarding remote work allocations, it may be best to deploy a more team-led approach to decide who gets to work remotely and when. Employee input is key during this process. Employee empowerment is critical these days, and not just from a DIB perspective.

Final thoughts

Promoting inclusion and belonging in hybrid workplaces is essential for employee retention, productivity gains, and a host of other reasons. However, hybrid work is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can promote better work-life balance and make certain employees feel happier at work.

On the other, it can also exacerbate existing inequalities in the workplace. A proactive approach involving leadership at all levels of the organisation is essential to prevent this from happening. The better a company can promote and implement DEI initiatives in all modes of work, the more beneficial it is for their employer brand and talent acquisition.