Addressing inclusion risks in hybrid working environments

Jul 17, 2023 | Good Management

If you have already, or are considering, implementing a hybrid working model in your business, one factor you may not have yet considered is whether the model involves inclusion risks. Could hybrid working be directly or indirectly disadvantaging protected groups?

Below are some of the inclusion risks you should look out for, and some proactive measures you can take.

Career development and pay stagnation

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, research indicated that working flexibly, particularly in part-time arrangements, often led to limited career and pay growth. Flexible workers were often perceived negatively, seen as less dedicated or motivated. Similarly, fully remote work was associated with diminished career prospects and financial outcomes.

The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” held true in the workplace context, and, whilst hybrid working as a common and popularly-used model is still relatively young, there is of course a risk of the same negative perceptions developing. Studies have shown that where there is a stigma in respect of flexible working, women experience it more frequently than men.

Risks of unconscious proximity bias

Unconscious bias refers to our beliefs, attitudes, and biases that exist without our conscious awareness, yet can result in discrimination, exclusion, or unfair treatment when acted upon. An example of unconscious bias that may be relevant when implementing hybrid working is proximity bias, where we tend to favour individuals in close physical proximity. This can manifest in meetings, where those attending in person receive more attention or airtime for their opinions, or when managers show preferential treatment to those they work with closely or interact with in person more frequently.

Clearly this bias may favour individuals who regularly attend the office, potentially disadvantaging those who prefer to work remotely, more likely to include working parents, women, and ethnic minorities.

Gender stereotype reinforcement

A 2020 study revealed that flexible work arrangements can perpetuate gender stereotypes, reinforcing traditional gender roles within couples. For instance, women tend to utilise their flexibility for domestic tasks and childcare, further entrenching the societal perception of women in caregiving roles, whilst also being more likely to express a preference for increased remote working days as compared to male colleagues.

Women working at home more represents an increased risk to their pay and career development due to the ‘out of sight out of mind’ phenomenon, and presents a challenge for employers who may already be concerned about their gender pay gap or equal pay claims.

Racial imbalance

A 2021 survey conducted by Future Forum on the messaging platform Slack reported that 97% of black workers expressed their desire for a remote or hybrid office model in the future. It has been suggested that ethnic minorities may prefer remote work due to experiencing fewer racial micro-aggressions and less discrimination while working from home.

Whilst hybrid working may achieve this, clearly it doesn’t address an underlying problem and may in fact conceal it, whilst simultaneously ensuring workers from minority backgrounds may also suffer from career stagnation due to lack of presence in the office.

Younger workers

During the pandemic, young people were well-documented as encountering greater challenges when working from home. This difficulty could be attributed to factors such as living arrangements with family or inadequate housing that lacked conducive and private workspaces, particularly in shared houses. Younger workers may also have faced obstacles due to not having significant experience in navigating a work environment or building working relationships.

In addition, younger workers are more likely to be those in junior roles, apprenticeships, or trainee roles, all of which need plenty of support and guidance from experienced staff. This can be more difficult to achieve if either the young worker and/or the more experienced staff are not in the office.

Preventative measures

It can be seen that while hybrid working can bring enormous benefits, and indeed be popular with minority or protected groups, there are a number of risks when it comes to inclusion.

The most important action you can take to mitigate those risk is actually just to be aware of them – many organisations ‘sleepwalk’ their way into a problem and only become aware of it far too late. Specific actions you can take include:

  • Raising awareness of the unconscious biases amongst staff and managers, and providing training to mitigate their impact.
  • Monitoring recruitment, pay and promotion decisions carefully against protected characteristics, and, if you perceive a risk of unfairness when looking at the monitoring, delving deeper to see whether any of the issues around hybrid working were a factor
  • Ensuring decisions of that nature are carefully evidenced by managers making them – this will reduce the likelihood of these biases being a factor in the first place, and where there is a perception hybrid working was relevant, will reduce the risk of a claim.
  • Setting an example and encouraging senior managers to do the same – if senior leadership are seen to be working in a hybrid way, perceptions that flexible working is a negative thing, or involves less valuable work, will be reduced.
  • Putting in place structured support for those younger workers (or indeed workers of any age) who need on-the-job training and guidance, to ensure it isn’t missed due to remote working.

Hybrid work arrangements present potential inclusion risks, but raising awareness of the risks and taking proactive measures can mitigate these challenges. By prioritising equality, addressing biases, and providing support, small business owners can create inclusive hybrid work environments that foster productivity and engagement among all employees. If you’d like some advice on implementing hybrid working, do get in touch.