By: Andrell Forelien on May 19th, 2022

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Avoid These DEI Problems With Your Return-to-Work Plans

Diversity & Inclusion | Business Management & Strategy | COVID-19 | DEI

Like many other knowledge workers, my sister has been working remotely for the last two years. The organization she works for has suddenly decided to ditch its remote-work model and has communicated to its employees that they "will no longer support remote work or hybrid program." Employees will be expected to return to the office pre-pandemic style now.

And you guessed it; she is currently on the job market looking for remote work-only roles. This made me think about how many people have a mindset in today's market and the potential outcome this can have on employers. 

In the last two years, remote work has been hugely successful, and because of this, a massive problem has been created: not everyone wants to go back to the office. 

Get Feedback From All Employee Population Groups

As I dug deeper into the current trends and feelings of the workforce at large, research has shown certain demographic groups are more opposed to returning to the office than others:

A Future Forum Pulse survey conducted in January of 2022, illustrates that most women, people of color, and parents would prefer to work from home or have a hybrid schedule than their male, white, child-free counterparts.

Another study, the Harris Poll, takes it a step further, highlighting executives "are nearly three times as likely to want to return to work in person as employees." The numbers below reflect the opinion of knowledge workers employed full-time for more than 30 or more hours per week as stated in the report:

  • 52% of women say they enjoy working remotely and would like to do so in the long term, compared to 41% of men. 
  • 52% of Black workers and 50% of women say working from home is better than working in the office when it comes to advancing their careers, compared with 42% of men.
  • 63% of Black workers and 58% of women say they feel more ambitious when working from home versus the office. Only 46% of men feel the same way.
  • Executives who work remotely are nearly three times more likely than employees to prefer returning to the office full-time; 
  • 76% of employees want flexibility where they work, and 93% want flexibility when they work.

"The view of the office looks different from the top," said Brian Elliott, Vice President of the Future Forum. "While executives are banging down the door to get back to their corner offices, non-executive employees are demanding flexibility in where and when they work. Companies must do more to bridge this gap in order to attract and retain top talent," he said in the report.

Additional information in a Forbes article, "The Great Disconnect: Many More Employers Than Workers Want to Return To Offices," reinforces the numbers. A reoccurring theme across all of these resources is there seems to be a wide gap between employers' and employees' working preferences post-pandemic.

My colleague at Helios wrote an article recently, 5 Questions to Ask Employees Before Returning to the Office. Not only does the article highlight the "plot twist" employers may need to anticipate as they make decisions on their plans to return to the office, but it also recommends employers ask their knowledge workers about their desired workplace environments (remote, hybrid, in-person, etc.).

Not everyone has had the same remote work experience, some employees may feel isolated and look forward to being back together with their colleagues. The most important consideration for leaders though is to not assume. You may be surprised by how employees feel about where and how they work. If you have not asked, you should be asking now if going back to the office in person is something you are considering.

Once you have the data points, try working around each person's preference, as your business needs will allow. Evaluate your reasoning for requiring employees to return to the office. Is hybrid work an option? Why or why not?

  • Do you struggle with trusting your employees to get the job done?
  • Did you undergo some office renovations?
  • Did you sign a new lease or renew an old one?
  • Is working from home not quite in alignment with the company culture?

If you are struggling with any of the above reasons, perhaps you can devote some time to dig deeper to get to the root of the concern. In order to become a desired, employer of choice for your knowledge-based workers, it's important you can be flexible.

Disrupt Inequity Problems & Opportunity

If you decide to move forward with a flexible hybrid model, keep in mind there could be potential for an inequitable workplace, as in-office employees interact more with managers and executives. Employees who work from home may fall out of sight and out of mind. If many of your minority employees work remotely or have a hybrid schedule, what does this mean for their performance standards? What does this mean for opportunities? What does this mean for advancement? What about socialization?

Employers must find ways to provide fair and equitable performance appraisals in a remote environment. Helios has some recommendations in these articles that you may find useful: "How to Conduct Performance Reviews for Remote and Hybrid Teams” and Top 4 Strategies for Training and Developing Your Remote Workforce.

Disrupting inequity must be your priority as an employer in a remote or hybrid working environment. In the grand scheme, consider reimaging your organization’s workplace design.

  1. Consider measuring your remote/in-person employee’s performances by outcomes and pivoting from performance by visibility in the office. If performance is measured only by input, the manager has observed in the traditional “in-office” environment, then this creates equity between employee. In contrast, when performance is based on outcomes, it realigns the playing field for remote or in-person workers.
  2. Spontaneous meetings or work session collaborations in the past have driven connection and have helped spark ideas. This can create professional leverage if tech resources are not available for remote employees to participate in the collaboration. Consider incorporating resources that allow team members to make real-time edits, provide commentary, mind map and upload documents to share with their colleagues.
  3. Previously, employers depended on consistent working hours of operation. Now and going forward, work will require flexible work experiences. Learning to get the proper balance of productivity and engagement is vital.

Maintaining equity by transforming your organization's workplace design requires empathy-based leadership and ingenuity.

Think about how you, as an organization leader, will make an effort to reimagine employees’ professional success by switching from an office-focused metric to a performance outcome metric. How you can redefine what intentional collaboration looks like through additional tools and technology to enable all employees to engage. You can provide work flexibility that does not require traditional working hour demands to accomplish your business goals.

By listening to all voices, considering your team's perspective, and then responding to your workforce based on their feedback, you will prove to your team that you care about them and are willing to be flexible. It creates a stronger culture, stronger manager-employee bonds, and stronger outputs for your business' success.