Written by Lindsay K. Beers, Organizational Development Consultant, Development Solutions
Hybrid work is no longer a provisional measure; the data is clearly showing that this new way of working is here to stay. In an October 2021 survey, more than three-quarters of respondents1 globally said they expect hybrid/flexible work to be a standard practice in their organizations in the coming three years.
Companies and leaders are still getting used to working on a hybrid schedule. Despite the numerous benefits it offers, there are also challenges that can impact an organization’s effectiveness if left unaddressed. When it comes to fostering an inclusive workplace, hybrid work in particular presents some unique obstacles and opportunities.
The good news is that with intention and effort creating an inclusive workplace is possible — even when you have some employees in the office and others working remotely. Let’s look at how leaders in your organization can promote inclusivity in a hybrid context.
What makes an inclusive culture?
Start with the end goal in mind. What does the desired inclusive culture look, sound, and feel like within your organization?
In short, an inclusive company culture is one where a diverse workforce enjoys effectively and harmoniously working together, and each employee feels like a valued member of the team. Diversity can come in many forms, including differing backgrounds, demographics, personalities, working styles, and more.
Creating an inclusive company culture is a team effort that involves all the people in your organization, but in order to maximize success, it needs to start with senior leadership and be championed top-down.
Challenges and opportunities: How hybrid work impacts inclusivity
Hybrid work presents some disadvantages and some advantages when it comes to fostering an inclusive culture.
Developing and maintaining an inclusive culture can look a bit different in a hybrid environment compared to a traditional office environment, and these differences can present a challenge for leaders whose training and experience were rooted in an in-person context.
For instance, the connections that often form organically in an office setting require more intentionality in a hybrid workplace. Achieving similar connections in a hybrid workplace typically requires more direct effort and strategy when it comes to employees collaborating and building relationships with their managers and peers.
Hybrid work can also magnify in-group and out-group dynamics, meaning some employees feel like valued members of the team while others feel like outsiders whose presence is hardly felt or appreciated. In a hybrid context, this often looks like remote employees feeling their opinions and contributions are less important than those working in the office.
Hybrid work also presents advantages when it comes to promoting inclusivity. For one, new technological abilities to engage and collaborate across geographical regions allow the talent net to become broader, attracting a more diverse workforce.
Hybrid work can also help employees enjoy more flexibility and greater well-being, which can make them feel well supported and empowered. In a 2021 survey, the most popular attitude among global employees toward hybrid work was that they were thriving.2 In fact, in a 2022 survey, more than half of global employees identified flexible schedules and remote options as the core attributes of their ideal job.3
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of the increasing transition to hybrid work is that the challenges inherent in this new dynamic are also opportunities for companies to reevaluate their culture and for leaders to reassess their practices to create an inclusive culture.
6 leadership traits that contribute to an inclusive culture
Here are six key qualities leaders at all levels should be mindful of and consistently demonstrate:
1. Demonstrate empathy for others
In our research, more than half of employees said that showing empathy and compassion is a top way leaders can positively impact the employee experience. Including people starts with caring about them and their well-being. This is a key trait of a people-centered leader, whether they’re managing a team in the office, fully remote, or hybrid.
2. Learn more about others
The motivation to learn about others is key because it helps leaders take the time to learn more about and better understand their employees. Learning about other cultures and backgrounds and learning what makes each of their employees unique as individuals helps people feel seen and understood.
3. Proactively build relationships
Relationship building is critical no matter the work environment, but it can be more difficult for leaders of hybrid teams. Managers must be intentional and proactive about the ways they foster relationships with their employees. This might include increasing consistency of or placing a higher priority on one-on-one check-ins, for example.
4. Be flexible in communication approaches
Our research also found that open and frequent communication is something employees (especially Gen Z employees) want from their leaders. In a hybrid environment, leaders need to be willing to adapt and diversify the ways they communicate with employees. This may include a mix of in-person and virtual meetings, instant messages, phone calls, emails — whatever your organization deems appropriate and fits your employees’ preferences.
5. Root out unconscious bias
Leaders should frequently test their assumptions and look out for unconscious biases so they can correct them. As a contributor to Harvard Business Review points out, this also means being open to feedback from others that may be difficult to hear.4 In addition to those traditional biases, leaders must also ensure they’re not inadvertently discriminating against remote employees.
6. Step outside the comfort zone
If a leader truly wants to foster an inclusive environment, they have to be willing to step outside of their comfort zone. This may mean joining an initiative related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), for example, or simply building relationships with employees with whom they share less in common.
Hybrid workplaces present a new set of concerns that highlight the importance of what it means to be an effective leader. Inclusivity is just one piece of the puzzle.