Before the onset of COVID-19, companies’ diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies (DEI) were usually concerned with the physical office space and were about making in-person interactions and processes more inclusive. However, as McKinsey and Co.’s 2020 study proved, these efforts had to shift gears to support the work-from-home and hybrid models of the post-COVID landscape.

Since increased DEI has a proven direct correlation to the success and growth of a company, leaders needed to contend with this new mode of work from a DEI standpoint. Thus, with COVID-19, companies were forced to consider how the hybrid model supports and compromises DEI within the workplace.

DEI and hybrid work: a mixed bag

Ensuring DEI at the workplace has always been a challenge. While the hybrid model supported it in some ways, in some other ways, the model negatively impacted some employees. Let’s begin with the positives.

  • Reduced stress for marginalized communities. The new flexible, remote work environment reduced stress levels for nearly every group. This was especially true for marginalized communities, who often put in additional effort to code-switch and match the speech and professional mannerisms of the dominant culture. For example, a Future Forum survey revealed that 97% of African American employees surveyed, preferred the hybrid or remote models due to less code-switching and fewer instances of microaggressions.
  • More accessible workplaces. An office without an elevator, ramp or similar facilities can significantly affect who applies for a job there. A hybrid workplace therefore reduces the distance to the office, placing it just an internet connection away. Hence, it also reduces the stress of commuting that could exacerbate physical or mental health issues. Additionally, the hybrid environment is more conducive for single parents and people with primary care responsibilities, who want to balance their work and home lives effectively.
  • No ivory towers. Closed-off offices for upper management are no longer a reality in the hybrid workplace, and everyone feels leveled during an online meeting. As a result, employees may also get more comfortable approaching the management to share ideas or voice their concerns.

When implemented correctly, DEI strategies can improve people’s ability to innovate, respond to customer needs, and collaborate – in other words, improve business performance. Thus, it stands to reason that the absence of an inclusive culture can negatively impact business performance by affecting an employee’s work-life. Challenges facing the DEI efforts in the hybrid model include:

  • Lack of visibility. When people are just icons on a screen, organization leaders can often find it hard to catch microaggressions. Additionally, employees facing the brunt of anti-inclusivity rhetoric may find it challenging to report instances of discrimination due to not seeing the management or the perpetrator in person.
  • Remote work biases. SHRM’s 2021 research revealed several biases harbored by employers against remote workers. When most marginalized people prefer work-from-home or hybrid models, this can significantly affect their job stability. For example, 67% of employers considered remote workers replaceable, while remote workers’ salaries also grew slower than their in-office counterparts. Such biases increase the existing wage gap between the dominant and marginalized communities under the hybrid model.

While DEI efforts have come a long way, companies can benefit more from designing and implementing DEI strategies that are relevant to the hybrid workplace. Microaggression training and reporting workshops, investments in employees’ financial and emotional well-being, ensuring inclusion during online meetings, as well as making space for diverse working styles can greatly support employees and ensure that DEI efforts yield results.

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