Over the past few years, companies have deployed a wide range of strategies to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. While many of these efforts have been successful, they may soon be undermined by a novel but increasingly common barrier to achieving and maintaining DEI, namely the hybrid workspace.

At first glance, it might seem as though any amount of location flexibility can only be a good thing as far as DEI goes. The reality is a bit more complicated. As the Harvard Business Review (HBR) notes, the hybrid workspace will have both “equity-enhancing and equity-reducing” effects. For instance, though hybrid workspaces may be accessible to a wider range of demographics, differences in who spends time in the office may impact career trajectory. In turn, this may result in a two-tiered environment where those who spend more time at home are viewed as less productive and offered fewer career advancement opportunities.

Companies implementing flexible location policies must take special measures to ensure that they continue to move the DEI needle forward. Organizations can prepare themselves to counteract the equity-reducing effects of hybrid models by following the four tips below.

  1. Record and analyze the stats: To ensure that hybrid work models are not further disenfranchising marginalized groups, organizations must take several key measurements and examine the results for problematic patterns. Hybrid work models can interact with other workplace policies, cultural traits, and external factors to create unintentional barriers that take away the opportunity to work in the office from particular groups. For instance, inequitable societal expectations for childcare responsibilities may pressure more women than men to work from home. Similarly, organizational cultures that are characterized by intolerance or racial insensitivity may push historically disenfranchised groups out of the office. Because of considerations like these, Tara Roberts, a seasoned DEI practitioner, argues in her article for HBR, that organizations should begin by determining if there are demographic differences in how much time workers are spending in the office or who has the opportunity to work from the office. If an organization determines that the data plays out along the lines of traditionally marginalized groups, swift action will be necessary.
  1. Beware of the proximity bias: Proximity bias refers to the tendency to view an individual more favorably the more often they are seen in person. These proximity-based differences in positive attitudes and beliefs can easily translate to proximity-based differences in the treatment of those that need or deserve the same access to opportunities. For instance, one study found that people are more willing to donate to charitable causes that are physically closer to their homes. In organizational contexts, this psychological phenomenon can lead employers to perceive employees who come into the office more frequently as more productive, engaged, and ultimately more deserving of promotions and other forms of advancement. When combined with other structures that discourage marginalized groups from coming into the office, an unchecked proximity bias can exacerbate extant inequities. Proximity bias may be hard to eliminate entirely. However, awareness can go a long way towards minimizing its negative effects. Leaders must be mindful of the proximity bias when evaluating their team members, assessing their performance, and determining who is worthy of being rewarded.
  1. Look out for microaggressions: Dr. Derald Wing Sue a leader in the field on microaggressions and their negative impacts on marginalized groups, describes them in his article, Microaggression: More Than Just Race, as follows: “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.” Microaggressions are experienced in the workplace by a substantial majority of historically disenfranchised groups. For instance, according to research conducted by McKinsey & Company, 76% of LGBTQ+ men and 82% of LGBTQ+ women experience microaggressions at work. As the Washington Post reports, those who experience microaggressions are likely to find remote work to be particularly appealing if not entirely essential. As a result, DEI will not survive in hybrid work environments with rampant microaggressions and an unchecked proximity bias. In these organizations, marginalized groups will be pushed out of the office only to be viewed as less productive and worthy of promotions or other advancement opportunities.
  1. Focus on the historical case for DEI: The effects of generations of racial and ethnic inequity will pose a constant threat to any DEI initiative. As a result, leaders must remain motivated and vigilant. Adequate levels of concern won’t come from a preoccupation with optics. Instead, leaders must have a strong desire to create a just outcome. They must bear in mind the context that makes DEI initiatives essential. An awareness of the historical backdrop behind DEI initiatives is often lacking, jeopardizing the efforts of countless organizations. As Torin Perez, a DEI Consultant and Speaker told HR Brew: “For many organizations that point is completely missed…they’re lacking the larger origination story, they’re lacking the larger context of why we even have DE&I initiatives in the first place. It’s grounded in human rights. It’s grounded in human value…striving for a more just world.”

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