DEI in the Hybrid Workplace

Nov 01, 2021 by Nomadic Team

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As Stephanie LeBlanc Godfrey, Global Head of Inclusion for Women of Color at Google, says, “It takes intentionality to include others.” This is perhaps especially true during times of change––such as the transition to a hybrid work model.

In hybrid work, we may no longer be in an office the entire week, but the office dynamics are still there underneath it all. And in addition to these longtime structural issues, hybrid work also poses new challenges to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Taking a closer look at how power structures persist in the hybrid workplace can help ensure your hybrid company not only avoids common DEI issues in the transition to hybrid work, but also uses this moment to improve company culture for all employees.

With some effort and creativity, this transition can become a unique opportunity to foster an environment in which––no matter where they’re working from––everyone feels seen, heard, and included.

1 - Look out for proximity bias (and all biases).

Hybrid work is, ideally, the best of both worlds, allowing our organizations to take advantage of the benefits of both in-person and remote work. But when it comes to DEI, hybrid work can also introduce new issues. Proximity bias is perhaps the most significant. Proximity bias is defined as the tendency to look more favorably on the people we see more often. In a hybrid work environment, this could mean that workers who put in more “face time” at the office are more likely to receive raises or promotions.

This is important because hybrid work will likely take a different shape for different members of our teams. At companies where the hybrid model is flexible, some employees may be more likely to opt for more work-from-home time, whether that’s due to commute length, childcare responsibilities, disability, working style, or simply wanting to avoid stressors at the office.

For example, one study found that 97% of black employees currently working remotely in the US preferred a hybrid or fully-remote working model over a fully in-person model, while 79% of their white counterparts felt similarly. Some experts speculate this may have to do with the microaggressions workers often face at the office, pointing out that women are also more likely to prefer remote work than men, potentially due to in-office problems like harassment. With different employees potentially spending significantly different amounts of time in the office, awareness of proximity bias is key to avoid serious threats to DEI progress down the line. Some companies may account for this by standardizing the number of days in the office per week, while others may prioritize flexibility and spend time training their managers to recognize and resist this bias, even as their teams settle into distinct patterns of work.

The transition to hybrid is a great moment to reevaluate other biases, too. Is it easier for extroverts to be heard in our company? Do we value certain communication styles, or take for granted that decisions will be made by particular people or groups? With more of our discussions moving online, this is a chance to observe our communication and perhaps even gather some data on current patterns. If 50% of our organization is made up of women, for example, but only 20% of Slack messages in company-wide channels are written by women, this may be worth investigating.

In this way, emergent data can help our organizations take advantage of our hybrid models to interrogate problematic aspects of our company culture that may have passed unnoticed before.

2 - Make clear DEI is a key leadership priority.

Leaders and managers have a lot on their plate right now. Charged with heading up the transition to hybrid work, many are spending their days learning to navigate tech hassles and logistical issues, such as running mixed-mode meetings or incorporating factors like in-person collaboration days into their project management. But amidst all this, ensuring that DEI is a leadership focus––from the highest levels of the C-suite through middle managers––must be a priority, too.

In many organizations, leadership is still not particularly diverse. Only 7.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and black professionals hold only 3.2 percent of all executive or senior leadership roles. With the backdrop of these dismal numbers, it’s essential that leaders and managers go out of their way to communicate that DEI is a key priority, and that they recognize that the structural issues contributing to continued DEI challenges at the office will also be a factor remotely.

Empathy can play a big role here. The transition to hybrid work affects different employees in different ways, and employee listening can help drive our understanding of these nuances. Surveying your employees will provide baseline data about their concerns or struggles when it comes to your company’s hybrid work model, along with other data that can offer a useful comparison for understanding how this model is impacting different employees as you reevaluate your hybrid model’s success. These sorts of surveys also signal to employees that they’re being heard.

Along with pulse surveys, general communication between managers and their staff is key. Alison Hill, author of Work from Anywhere, suggests having a system in place to ensure that leaders are regularly connecting with all team members, regardless of where they’re working.

As leaders, simply letting people know that we’re there when they have an issue––and that we’re accessible for conversations about DEI topics in particular––can go a long way!

Finally, sometimes the most effective way to show that we’re making DEI a key leadership priority in hybrid work is to admit when we’re not quite getting it right. As we continue our employee listening efforts and gather data about how our hybrid efforts are going, there will inevitably be bumps in the road. Being open about our shortcomings in our DEI efforts, as well as transparent about the meaningful action we’ll take to do better, helps model the kind of behavior we expect from all employees. This lets our teams know that we’re serious when it comes to taking the lead on these initiatives.

3 - Create space for authentic communication around mental health and wellbeing.

One of hybrid work’s greatest promises is the chance to balance the benefits of remote work with the collaborative environment of the in-person office. One of those benefits is simply the respite from the day-to-day office life grind: commutes, less-than-comfy attire, the complex nuances of in-person interactions.

Another has been the breaking down of barriers between home life and work life. Though this has created its share of difficulties––the feeling of being “always on,” the challenges of working from home while parenting––it’s also meant, for many people, the relief of being able to bring more of their authentic selves into the virtual workplace.

Suddenly, as we integrated the rhythms of work and home life, Zoom windows filled with cats perched on desktops or toddlers interrupting slide three of the deck to say they were thirsty for chocolate milk. We got to see our colleagues’ houseplants, family photos, and wall decor. We got to see them in their comfy clothes. Combined with the small and large tragedies of the global pandemic, at many organizations, this new dynamic has led to more frankness around mental health challenges. And a much more honest conversation about the need to foster mental wellbeing moving forward.

This honesty is something we should strive to bring with us from remote work into hybrid work. Burnout is still widespread. The statistics are alarming––here are some from the UK, and numbers have been ticking up worldwide, too. Even as vaccine rollouts continue, experts predict we’ll be dealing with the mental health fallout from the pandemic for years to come. As we add the new routines of hybrid work into this complex mix, it’s crucial to put mental health and wellbeing front and center. This means actively creating space for employees to take the time they need to care for themselves, through generous leave policies and a culture that promotes actually making use of this leave. It also means fostering a sense of psychological safety between employees and their managers.

LeBlanc Godfrey says that clear communication is the key to all of this. “Role-modeling and transparency is the most important thing,” she noted. She believes that people are looking for permission to use mental health and wellbeing perks, so it’s essential for managers to signal this permission through their own behavior. When managers are open about using the benefits themselves, they let their employees know it’s okay––even encouraged––to do the same.

Keeping up this conversation around mental health and general employee wellbeing isn’t just good for employees. It’s also good for the bottom line. There’s a strong positive correlation between employee wellbeing and productivity, alongside growing evidence for a causal effect. So it’s well worth putting our efforts into being bold, creative, and thoughtful in the way we approach the issue of mental health as we continue to navigate our transitions to, and implementation of, a hybrid work model.


Make sure you and your managers are ready for this massive transition in how we work. Sign them up for Nomadic’s Program, Hybrid Working. This first-of-its-kind Program explores current best practices for the hybrid office, including creating community on a hybrid team, reimagining how we use time, coaching and retraining staff in a hybrid environment, and more. We also recently launched a new Field Manual (our version of an online model) focusing exclusively on DEI challenges and opportunities in a hybrid environment!

Learn more about the Hybrid Working Program––or talk to us about getting Hybrid Working for your whole organization.

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