As organisations embrace hybrid working models, what we’ve learned over the last two years is that people strategies often need to be implemented differently. Adapting to the context becomes exceptionally critical if one wants to reap the benefits of a diversified workforce. While leaders often discuss the value of flexibility in driving productivity and engagement, burning questions about strengthening collaboration and belonging may be left unanswered.
And as we discuss over and over again the importance of sustaining a work culture despite the absence of the watercooler, how do we ensure that the gaps of DEI are bridged within hybrid teams? Expectations will vary as members switch between working remotely and in the office; moreover, those working from the four walls of the homes might sometimes feel disconnected. This feeling may become even more intense if they come from minority communities. The narrative of hybrid working models is indeed unique. On the one hand, it’s vociferously demanded by the workforce as they’ve adapted to new working styles. On the other, it can exacerbate the challenges of remote working challenges if not implemented with foresight.
So what we’ve asked leaders today is this: How do we successfully lead and implement diversity and inclusivity frameworks within the larger hybrid working model?
What bridges need to be built for a sustained, meaningful change?
In conversation with us, Paramdeep Singh Anand, CEO at FieldAssist, raises an important point for consideration by talking about the importance of managing not simple employee experience but rather employee’s life experiences in the hybrid set-up. One of the pressing challenges in realising the desired outcomes of any DEI initiative is a lack of emotional connection as a result of a virtual avatar of the employee. What becomes urgent then is to re-design the approach with a people-first mindset.
“In today’s context of hybrid, flexible models, some of the existing biases have become more visible, and this is where we see resistance coming from. For example, the biases such as ‘experience bias’ – the thought that the way things have always been is the way things always have to be and ‘distance bias’ – our preference towards those who are co-located with us or those we meet in person more often,” shared Ashish Kapoor, Director HR at Eaton. Given the persistence of biases that often impact the outcomes of diversity and inclusion initiatives, it becomes an essential point in the conversation to understand some of the best ways to overcome this hurdle.
In a striking answer to this question, Roshni Rathi, Partner and Seema Bansal, Partner and Director at BCG India, emphasise, “Companies won’t have balanced workforces unless they approach diversity like any other business priority, with clear metrics to understand gaps and interventions targeted at fixing them. Many companies don’t have clear data on the diversity of their talent pipeline/workforce over time. As a result, they cannot accurately identify problems or launch tailored interventions. Companies need to establish clear and appropriate metrics with regards to: (1) recruitment, (2) retention, (3) advancement, and (4) representation—along with (5) equal pay, and they must measure progress over time.”
What is the leadership's role then in overturning the biases in a hybrid workplace?
“The pandemic was a game-changer in redefining the workplace, and the hybrid work model has become a reality. To create an equitable environment, leaders must set the tone from the top and lead by example, especially in today’s new world. Paying close attention to how the workplace is designed and managed helps keep employees motivated and reduces disparity. Since the new rules of engagement have accelerated the need to accommodate employees in different work environments, businesses must be prepared to address their requests quickly and effectively while ensuring each employee, whether in-office or working from home, feels an integral part of the team. Leaders need to focus on creating inclusive work environments that encourage collaboration from all, irrespective of their location,” advises Dev Deepika, Vice President & Head - Human Resources, India & Sri Lanka at Fiserv.
Additionally, engaging the leadership team in conversations about where biases might exist inside the organisation is often the first step towards eliminating proximity bias and negating its impact, according to Rakhi Shaha, Vice President - Human Resources, Mobileum. She also believes in establishing a practice of making a concerted effort to get to know team members on a personal level.
“Empathy and vulnerability can be felt from screen to screen, office room to office room, and it pays dividends. Do not assume but ask about people's needs, acknowledge them, and tailor your actions accordingly. Establish direct communication with co-workers who may feel like being a minority group and see how they are doing. Make it a point to draw them into discussions. Be brave and acknowledge difficult situations, ask questions, and create space for people to share openly how they feel and what they need,” adds Shaha.
Outlining some of the programs that Synchrony has led, Vatika Kaura, Vice-President of Operations at the company, says, “Conducting periodic surveys, virtual roundtables, “Ask Us Anything” sessions and other team collaboration activities were essential to emphasise that we treat all our employees equally whether they are at the office or working from home. These activities also take the pulse of the employees to understand what’s on their minds and ensure that we actively listen and respond to their feedback.”
Leadership commitment is critical to successful change. Rathi and Bansal from BCG India believe that leaders must demonstrate their support for DEI by publicly speaking about it and establishing inclusive policies. At the end of the day, the most successful programs are outcome-focused, with specific targets for which leaders are accountable.
“Company leaders, with their influence and visibility, are uniquely positioned to role model behaviours, enable an inclusive environment, and make space for dialogue and programming. Line managers also play a critical role in ensuring that the day-to-day experience for team members is free of bias and that systemic challenges are called out and addressed. To improve employees’ interactions with colleagues, direct managers, and leadership, leaders must focus on culture change—what we call the “1,000 daily touch points,” adds Rathi and Bansal.
In a hybrid workplace, the touchpoints are often more than an employee can keep track of, given the unique intermix of remote and in-person interactions backed by technology interventions. What becomes fundamental then is to recognise the long gaps that negatively impact DEI's outcomes. In addition, given the unique role of leadership in spearheading these strategies, they need to fully understand the feelings of inclusion and build safe spaces with consistent and ongoing efforts, adapting to the changing contexts, expectations and experiences.