Maintaining True Equity in a Virtual/Hybrid World

In announcing a new hybrid work policy, the senior leaders of this mid-sized financial services company promised that “all people, regardless of work location, will be treated equitably.” All 250+ headquarters employees were offered some degree of flexibility, with the details to be hammered out with supervisors. About one-third of the employees opted to return to the office full time, while others began working remotely 2-3 days a week.

Thomas felt lucky that his supervisor seemed to support his desire to work remotely three days a week, until he found out that he was suddenly removed from a coveted project. His boss explained: “Since you’ve chosen to work remotely most of the week, I figured you couldn’t be serious about working on a project this important.”

June opted to return to the office full time. She craved the buzz of the office and missed connecting with people outside of her own team. She was glad that senior leadership committed to treating employees equitably, which hadn’t ever been the case when they all worked together in person. But when her manager called for an after-work team meeting over drinks, June’s expectations were dashed. Like June, many of her colleagues couldn’t easily change weeknight plans, and not everyone enjoys an evening of drinking. June was also concerned that remote colleagues would be left out. Not so equitable, after all.

In moving to a hybrid work model, leaders do need to guard against “proximity bias,” which refers to the tendency to favor those closest to us, where out of sight really does mean out of mind. To do this, organizations must identify and address aspects of work where inequities between onsite and remote employees are most likely to exist. But this doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Even in a pre-pandemic world when people worked side by side, inequities have long existed, whether due to socioeconomic status, gender, age, race, sexual orientation, type of degree, health, religion, relationship to people in power, personality, physical ability, communication style, accent, hairstyle, or myriad other factors.

Today’s leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to identify and address such inequities as they roll out a new work model. Here are some steps organizations can take today to root out the sources of inequities and begin to address them through decisive action.

  • Ask people where they see inequities existing. Make it safe for them to respond candidly, which may mean setting up an anonymous response area online. You might suggest certain aspects of work, as I do for my Discovering Unconscious Bias workshops. Here I ask participants to comment on any of several topics, such as recruiting, interviewing, professional development, promotions, salaries, memberships and social connections. I invite people to provide examples, which helps encourage sharing during our workshop.
  • Create opportunities for small groups to share observations and experiences in confidence, with an option to report out to the larger group if they feel comfortable. Such discussions help to provide a deeper understanding of the implications of prevailing inequities for the organization as a whole, and more crucially, for those on the receiving end. Such discussions might take place during a workshop, in a meeting, or in private online conference area.
  • Invite people to tell their stories, which help create a shared understanding of the effects of inequities on a more visceral level. A few examples from my workshops: A woman was asked to remove herself from a highly-visible project after the birth of her child. A 50-year-old man was turned down for a new leadership program due to his age. A Black woman was told her natural hair made her look “less professional.” A Muslim woman was excluded from a social invitation because the organizer knew she didn’t drink. A woman’s physical disabilities prevented her from participating in outdoor teambuilding activities. A manager from India wasn’t selected for a senior leadership role because “he was too hard to understand.”
  • Assimilate recurring themes and common threads to create a systemic view of your organization. Focus on where inequities seem to occur most frequently, and explore the likely causes. This is usually best done as a small cross-functional group. For example, if the data shows that women and people of color are given proportionately fewer promotions than their White, male counterparts, dig in to better understand the reasons. In a recent workshop, we found that job descriptions required certain qualifications that were largely irrelevant, and that those who review candidates for senior positions tend to choose people who look like them.
  • Brainstorm actionable ideas to make systemic changes. Start with areas where inequities seem the most glaring and doing the most damage. In the previous example, actions might include rewriting job descriptions, rethinking criteria for promotions, creating a more diverse promotion review board, recasting interview questions, or redacting certain information from candidate’s documentation, including names, gender, college or zip code.
  • Commit the resources, time and energy to implement the most important ideas first. This requires enthusiastic, visible endorsement and agreement from senior leadership at the outset to clear barriers, provide needed resources, communicate progress and proactively identify and tackle work still to be done.
  • Make this kind of examination and action planning a continuous process, vs. a one-time event. Monitor your progress and determine future focus areas by polling, surveying and interviewing both managers and employees throughout the year, determining how current plans might be tweaked and identifying other areas that may require urgent attention.

As organizations move to a hybrid work model, many leaders are working to ensure that all employees are treated equitably, regardless of location. That’s fine as far it goes, but it’s not nearly enough. Capitalize on this time of transformation to identify, address, and make reparations for other inequities that have been hiding in plain sight all along.

Here in the Boston area, where city planners created roadways by paving over the cow paths that led from their grazing ground in Boston Common, we use the expression “Don’t pave the cow paths” when we’re in danger of institutionalizing broken systems. Take this opportunity to create new pathways, instead of paving the old cow paths.


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