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Hybrid working and the fight for equality in 2022

Paul Clark, senior vice president, EMEA managing director, Poly, on what employees need to know


Business leaders who want most staff to return to the office full-time are swimming against the tide. Soon enough they’ll find unhappy workers voting with their feet. There are new rules at play now; new expectations after 18 months or more of remote working. But the hybrid model many predict will be the future of work comes pre-loaded with a whole new set of challenges and potential pitfalls. Research from Poly shows that over half (52%) of global workers think hybrid or home workers could be discriminated against, versus those in the office full-time.

 That’s bad news for businesses hoping to tap what could be a post-crisis era of startling innovation and productivity growth. Fixing these challenges will require a delicately balanced people-first approach, supported by process and technology improvements. Equality of experience could be the next defining debate of the 21st century workplace. 

Burned out
Most employees now expect a hybrid model to emerge from the ashes of the pandemic, and business leaders agree. On paper it offers the best for both parties: happier, more productive staff, important opportunities for face-to-face interaction and a reopening of expensive city-centre office buildings. Two-thirds (66%) of business leaders are said to be considering redesigning office space, while 73% of employees want flexible working, and 67% crave more in-person collaboration.

 Home working is most definitely not, as described by some leaders, an “aberration”. Even organisations that attract the brightest and best may struggle to continue doing so if they remain inflexible. After all, this is the age of the ‘Great Resignation’. Yet hybrid work comes with a distinct set of challenges. Employees are increasingly concerned about burnout, lack of IT support and the potentially negative impact on their career development.

Take burnout. According to EU agency Eurofound, those working from home (WFH) during the pandemic were more likely to work regularly during their free time. And they were twice as likely to exceed the legal maximum of 48 hours per week than their office-bound colleagues. Feeling unable to switch off from work will put many employees on a fast-track to mental and physical exhaustion – and straight to a competitor that treats its staff better.

Inequality concerns also extend to the type of experience home working staff feel they’re going to get. The rapid transition to remote working during the crisis has left many with a makeshift set-up of personal devices, cheap headsets and under-powered applications. That’s understandable in the short term. But it cannot be allowed to become the de facto for those who choose to WFH long term. Yet research shows that many currently find it difficult to collaborate with colleagues online, lack IT support and don’t have the right equipment to be as productive as when they’re in the office.

Treading wate
Many more office workers are concerned that working remotely will have a negative impact on their development and career progression – especially if they’re aged 16-24. Nearly half (47%) are worried about missing out on learning from peers and senior team members. This anxiety extends to renumeration. One study of UK organisations suggests 11% are preparing to drop the London weighting allowance for those who continue to WFH.

There are concerns that this may disproportionately impact female employees, given that women are more likely to choose long-term WFH options to care for their family. That could increase the gender pay gap and mean female staff have fewer face-to-face opportunities with their managers.

Work equity
It’s in employers’ best interests to ensure that the work-from-anywhere culture they create is one with equal opportunity and experience for all at its core. It will help to maximise staff productivity, reduce office-related overheads, and ensure they can recruit and retain the brightest and best talent. But this may require a major mind shift for both managers, and an IT department that’s used to telling users what they need rather than listening to their requests.

So, what should the road to hybrid working look like? First, it’s about recognising that ‘always-on’ is harmful. Set the right tone and define boundaries from the start to help workers improve work-life balance and shift to an ‘anytime’ model. Next, it’s about taking a people-first approach which equips these anytime workers with the right enterprise-grade headsets, desk phones and video conferencing devices – no matter where they are. Meeting rooms should also be equipped with first-class audio-video technology to seamlessly connect participants in the office with those working remotely.

The goal should be to provide a consistent, professional and friction-free experience regardless of location so everyone has an equal seat at the table. That’s the way to minimise bias and complexity, and deliver the work equity employees are increasingly demanding for a new post-pandemic era.