Is hybrid work a threat to equity and inclusion in the workplace?

Working from home has its pros and cons. On the upside, it means greater flexibility, more independence and no commute. On the downside, there’s the lack of social connection and risk of a disproportionate work-life balance.

But the work from home experience over the last year, hasn’t been the same for everyone. As Steelcase found in their latest research, there’s a real difference in home working conditions amongst employees. And those with ‘ideal’ conditions report lower stress levels and higher levels of engagement and productivity.

Clearly, the home working environment impacts how people feel and their ability to perform. So if organisations move to a hybrid work model, is there a risk that it will reduce equity and inclusion?

Disparities in the WFH experience 

Steelcase’s research found that the shift to working from home may have created inequalities between employees, with those working in ‘ideal’ conditions having an unfair advantage over others. 

“There’s a direct correlation between people’s home working conditions and their wellbeing and stress levels, which, in turn, impacts their performance. The better the conditions, the lower the stress and the better the outcome. That’s the good news.

The bad news: These benefits are not evenly distributed among workers, which sets up some employees for greater success, and others for greater struggles.”

The research identified four types of work-from home spaces:

  • Home office - a private room dedicated to work, that was likely to already be functioning before the pandemic and used on a part time basis
  • Work zone - a portion of space carved out within an existing room, with new furniture added to make it as functional as possible
  • Multipurpose area - existing furniture and spaces co-opted to support work, as well as personal activities, e.g. a dining table that co-exists as a workspace with tools and technology left in place
  • Temporary set-up - with minimal modifications, this is an area where people do both work and personal activities, and reverts to its primary function when not in use for work, e.g. working at the breakfast bar from a laptop 

Unsurprisingly, those with dedicated home offices fared the best. With better working conditions including more privacy, the right technology for collaboration, as well as ergonomic chairs and desks, these workers experienced less stress and better overall wellbeing.

At the other end of the scale, those working in multi-purpose or temporary spaces within the home have less control over their privacy, experience more interruptions, and are less likely to have an ergonomic chair and desk, or handy tools like a second monitor. This has led to higher levels of stress and lower levels of engagement and productivity.

Hybrid work - a threat to workplace equity?

equity-in-the-workplace

The danger is that as organisations move to hybrid work, with people splitting their time between the home and the office, that it could threaten the workplace equity that physical offices have always been able to provide.

In the physical office, all staff benefit from the same working conditions - the same broadband speed, resources, ergonomic chairs and spacious workstations.

Leaders need to recognise that not everyone has an ‘ideal’ working from home setup, and that home-based work will be harder for some than others. 

This was echoed in a recent Gensler article:

“If working from home is a regular part of the emerging hybrid work model, we must acknowledge that not all homes are equal. Many homes do not have strong internet access, enough space for a work desk, ergonomic chairs, conducive environmental factors, or just enough silence to accommodate focused work."

Optimising the WFH experience

It’s important that companies make employees feel supported to work from home. This means thinking about how they can extend the principles of office equity to workers’ homes. For example, by investing in furniture and equipment to optimise their working conditions, including providing ergonomic chairs, workstations, second screens and collaboration technologies.

The Steelcase research demonstrates just how important an ergonomic chair can be for home workers:

“Less than a third of people who work in multipurpose or temporary set-ups have an ergonomic chair, yet this one piece of furniture had an outsized impact on people’s stress and wellbeing, which, in turn, improved their productivity, engagement and feelings of team cohesion.”

ergonomic-chair-home-office

The workplace as an equaliser

If hybrid work is the future, then the workplace will need to work harder at supporting greater equity for when people are in the office.

Of course, designing workplaces that promote inclusivity and equality is far from a new idea. It was a hot topic before the pandemic hit. But if people are only going to be in the office for two or three days a week, it’s now even more important. 

Workers should be able to choose their workspace from a variety of settings, depending on the work needed to be accomplished and their personal preferences. They need spaces for socialisation, collaboration, and deep work. They need to be able to adapt these spaces to meet their needs, including the height of the desk and the setting of the chair, as well as the ability to add screens, barriers, monitor arms, and technology as required.

Another challenge of the hybrid work model is that there may be fewer opportunities to interact with coworkers in person. This could lead people to miss out on project opportunities and the ability to connect with or ‘be seen’ by key decision makers in the organisation. 

An article by Harvard Business Review explains this in more detail:

“Working in the same space as the boss increases the likelihood that employees’ efforts and actions will be recognized and top of mind. Employees who are seen in the hallways are likely to come to mind when it’s time to staff an important new project, and their actions on that project are likely to be recognized, resulting in credit for a job well done.” 

The hybrid workplace will need to work harder to accommodate new virtual and physical connections to ensure equal opportunities for all staff. For example, hybrid collaboration spaces will need to ensure remote workers are visible and feel included when working in mixed presence teams. 

hybrid-collaboration

Summary

A hybrid work model has many advantages for both employers and employees. But it does present a risk to fairness. Organisations must work hard to ensure all employees have access to better working conditions both at home and in the office. At home, this means ensuring employees have access to the same resources, equipment, technologies and opportunities. And the office must also continue to evolve to increase focus on equity and inclusion.

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