The race against a two-tier workforce

The past two years of working from home has had a levelling effect on teams. But as more companies begin their return-to-office transitions, hybrid work arrangements could end up alienating remote workers. Here’s how to avoid creating a two-tiered workforce.

Line illustration of a person passing a baton from a home office frame to a person in an different space

The pandemic prompted many businesses to quickly adopt remote and hybrid work. But now that offices are reopening, how should managers and leaders make sure that employees who come into the office aren’t unduly benefiting from the extra face time with colleagues and bosses?

This new workplace dilemma is one of the many issues we examined in our recent report on the Choice Economy, where we surveyed 2,000 small business leaders and employees across eight countries. We wanted to see how eighteen months of flexibility have fundamentally changed employee attitudes to how, where and when they work. 

‘Leaders have to be extremely careful not to over-index praise and rewards on the employees they see every day’, says Perrine Farque, founder of DEI consultancy Inspired Human and author of Inclusion: The Ultimate Secret for an Organization’s Success. ‘It’s natural to forge stronger relationships with those we see more frequently, and so unintentionally favour them for opportunities across the business.’

Follow these tips to avoid letting your team’s hybrid work arrangement inadvertently create a two-tiered workforce based simply on physical location.

Implement new systems to address bias

One of the best ways to stop unintended bias from creeping into your workforce is to implement solid systems and processes to keep managers accountable. Formal and informal feedback sessions are just one example. Without proper structures, it’s all too easy for praise and guidance to be doled out on an ad-hoc, in person basis, meaning others miss out. Regular feedback sessions mean managers can maintain relationships with all team members – regardless of work location – and ensure they get the praise they’re due. 

Regular team sprint meetings are a good way to extend this concept to a team level. A quick five- or ten-minute daily stand-up with the whole team – remote or otherwise – means leaders and other team members can see where work is being done and by whom and give out the appropriate recognition, so no one gets left behind. 

Last but not least, training and development is essential for managers of hybrid teams. ‘Management isn’t easy at the best of times,’ says Farque, ‘But when teams are scattered around the place it becomes ten times harder.’ Seek out coaches and consultants in the field of remote work to help your team adopt best practices.

Adopt inclusive recruitment strategies

Remote work has opened doors to many employees who previously struggled in conventional workplaces, such as the disabled and those suffering with mental health issues.

‘People who struggle with anxiety, or who are extreme introverts, have been huge benefactors of this switch to hybrid working,’ explains Farque. ‘There’s no need to cram yourself into a packed commuter train or bus anymore. You can be free to work in the comfort of your own home.’

As offices start to open up again however, this becomes more complex. These same workers will suffer if a fear of missing out on job prospects – or a lack of choice – forces them back into offices full-time. So how do we advance inclusivity as offices open up, rather than limit it?

One useful idea is to change your perception of ‘default’. We’ve  grown accustomed to seeing the office as ‘normal’ for some job roles. But if we weave job roles and office co-location this tightly, it’s always going to be hard for employees to change how they work. They’ll always revert back to the ‘norm’.

Shifting to a more task-based approach may be the solution. ‘Not every part of your job has to be done in an office’, says Michael Gutman, affiliate consultant at the Remote Work Institute. ‘If you break up the tasks that can be done remotely versus just the entire job, then you can start adding more flexibility within those jobs that have traditionally been limited to a physical location.’

On top of this, it’s important to continue offering up remote-working alternatives to in-office routines. Think video call apps, for example: Just because the majority of your team are in the office doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still add a link to your meeting invite. (Nor should anyone be penalised for using it.)

Finally, it’s worth thinking about how to change your long-term approach to new hires from a ‘culture-fit’ model to a ‘culture-add’ one. If you add exactly the same types of workers to your workforce, you’ll get the same results: businesses can’t simply avoid remote workers because they’re more ‘difficult’ to cater to. 

By hiring applicants who work differently, at different times, from different places, you’ll not only gain new insights and perspectives on your work, you’ll learn better how to approach and adapt for other new types of workers who may join your business, too.

Collect feedback

Knowing what your employees think and feel is critical to making sure you keep hold of your best talent and attract new employees.

Farque explains why, ‘We have to go over and above to ensure everyone’s input is sought, listened to and fed into the work we do as a team. This not only boosts team productivity but also ensures that everyone receives a fair opportunity.’

That means collecting qualitative and quantitative research as often as is feasible. Good feedback is not just ‘off-the-cuff’, however. It needs to be collected through proper processes that ensure any feedback is registered and shared throughout the organisation. ‘Skip level’ sessions – where employees meet with their line manager’s manager – are a good way to avoid organisational games of ‘telephone’ and ensure information reaches the places it should.

Once you have the feedback, you then need to do something with it. These employee surveys should inform your actions, not the other way round. At the same time, if feedback changes over time, don’t be afraid to change path.

‘You're going to get it wrong the first time, no matter how hard you try’, says Gutman. ‘There’s no way you can please everybody. It’s impossible. And there’s too much uncertainty in the future to know what the right policy is going to look like six months from now.’

The benefits of feedback go beyond just making business processes better. Employees are going to respect the fact that you’re listening to them. So over time, the policies start to really align with what their vision is for their own work.

Use the right tools

No business’s hybrid-work journey is going to look exactly the same as another’s. But if we can focus on the right systems and processes, backed up by the right tools, we have a shot at really creating workplaces that work for everyone. 

‘Tools like Dropbox enable simple collaboration and are great for teams to stay connected regardless of where they are’, says Farque. But it’s a marathon, not a sprint. ‘We’ve seen productivity boosts because of collaborative tools, but you can’t just implement them and consider the task done’, she adds.

By keeping your finger on the pulse of employee sentiment, you can ensure you’re responding to the reality on the ground, not just what you think is best. That will ultimately lead to happy, fulfilled workers who start to enjoy their work, rather than just trying to cope with it.

For more information and expert insights about the emerging Choice Economy – and the impact it’s having for businesses – read the full report here.