All inclusive: making hybrid offices work for everyone

By on 02/06/2022 | Updated on 05/06/2022
The model for workplace adjustment shouldn't be a compliance piece - “it’s about productivity and enabling people to thrive,” says GSK’s Andy Garrett.

The shift to remote and hybrid working has delivered many benefits for both employers and employees, including a better work-life balance and, in the main, higher productivity. But there are challenges too, not least ensuring that all home and office workspaces are appropriate for people’s needs, and that less social contact doesn’t adversely affect individuals’ mental health or career prospects. Experts at a recent Global Government Forum webinar explored ways to mitigate the risks

Employers across all sectors are wrestling with a new conundrum: how to ensure that the new hybrid working arrangements that are so popular with most of their employees are at least as appropriate, safe and inclusive for everyone as the pre-pandemic working environment, where almost everyone was in the office almost all of the time.

The benefits of greater home working are well documented – less time wasted commuting, more productive employees, access to a wider talent pool, and improved work-life balance for most. But there are risks and challenges to having a more distributed workforce, too. Greater isolation can lead to poorer mental health. Those that require certain tools or accommodations to their workspace will need these both at home and at work. Training and promotion opportunities must remain available to everyone, regardless of how much facetime they have with their line manager. And managers need to learn how to manage hybrid teams in a whole new way. As Siobhan Benita, the webinar’s chair, concluded: “You can’t just shift real life to online and think it’s going to work. You really need to work at this.”

Andy Garrett

The health challenges were summed up succinctly by Andy Garrett, global programme director – workplace adjustments service at pharmaceutical giant GSK, who said that employers can’t just send a person home and expect them to work from their kitchen table for the long term. “You have a duty of care to make sure you have the appropriate ergonomic provision, so that there is no risk of musculoskeletal problems developing, and you need to be thinking about mental health and wellbeing as well as physical health.”

Maximising productivity of all staff

While employers are legally obliged to provide reasonable adjustments for employees that identify as disabled, the panellists agreed that organisations need to stop viewing this agenda through the narrow lens of legal compliance. Instead, it should be an opportunity to support staff to be their most productive selves, wherever they work from and whatever accommodations they need.

“We have to decouple this subject from disability,” said Garrett. “For us at GSK, our model for workplace adjustment is open to anyone in our organisation… we don’t put in that pre-qualifier, with all its complexity, about who is disabled enough to justify needing x or y solution. It’s not a compliance piece, it’s about productivity and enabling people to thrive.”

He said it was crucial that managers and facilities providers are trained to think about inclusion in the round, as it is not just disabled people that might need specialist tools or support. “By making inclusion for everyone, it stops it being just about those people with a protected characteristic. We’ve got to equip everyone for success.”

Luna Bengio

Similar points were made by Luna Bengio, senior accessibility expert at the Office of Public Service Accessibility at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, and Dr Nasser Siabi, chief executive of assistive technology specialist Microlink. Bengio said that while new remote working arrangements opened up access to a much wider range of talent, civil service leaders were also finding that they were facing many more, and varied, demands from staff for accommodations and adjustments to enable them to do their jobs from home – including, for example, flexible hours to enable them to care for children or elderly relatives. 

Siabi agreed, suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic was a leveller for people with disabilities and those without, as organisations suddenly had to establish how to keep their employees engaged, motivated and productive whatever their individual needs.

The secret to making a success of hybrid working, Siabi said, is to “evaluate what the person can do, and don’t worry about what they can’t do, because what they can’t do can be helped with a range of support and technologies”. Even simple fixes such as turning on the transcription service or captioning function during a video meeting can be of huge benefit to people with hearing conditions, for example, and costs nothing. And very often, even those without disabilities will find such adjustments helpful.

Management training

Another key factor in making a success of hybrid working is providing the right training for managers. As well as teaching them to spot and handle mental health issues among team members they may only ever see online, they need to learn how to manage hybrid meetings in an inclusive way and create opportunities for social engagement. They also need to learn to guard against “promixity bias” – the risk that those they see in person are more often favoured for development and/or promotion.

Bengio advised employers to remove the responsibility of making decisions on accommodation approvals from line managers, and to establish a simple and smooth process that is clear and accessible to everyone in the organisation.

Michelle Phooko

Garrett agreed, saying that it is all too possible for managers to spend a lot of time and energy “going round the houses and maybe not managing the process very well”. Instead, he suggested that departments should train up a small number of people to do it well, and partner with a specialist organisation such as Microlink. “Then it becomes much more efficient, and you’ll get the metrics to prove its value.”

Michelle Phooko, director of talent and performance management at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), highlighted the importance of an organisation’s leadership being open about their disabilities, and “normalising the conversation” around required accommodations.

“For example, we’ve had senior leaders who have shared hearing difficulties which you would not have known about had they not written a post on our intranet.”

Meetings etiquette

On the subject of meetings, Phooko said that hybrid meetings are harder to handle than fully remote ones, so it can be more equitable to set up the meeting as if everyone is remote, rather than having a few people in one room together with others joining online. This can help to reduce unconscious bias against those not in the room, but managers still need to apply the same safeguards as they would in face-to-face meetings, ensuring that the loudest voices aren’t allowed to dominate.

Dr Alice Maynard

Dr Alice Maynard, director of Future Inclusion, also dislikes hybrid meetings. “If some people are on screen, everybody [should be] on screen. Or, there’s a magic camera in the middle of the room that moves according to who’s speaking – that’s quite useful. But my sense about this is that there’s no substitute for asking people what works best for them.” You might end up having to negotiate between different people’s access needs, she added, but it is still best to ask.

Garrett recommended building in an “inclusion moment” at the start of hybrid meetings to remind participants about how to conduct the meeting in an inclusive way, and to invite feedback on it, either publicly or privately, after the meeting ends.

Fostering water-cooler chats

The panel also discussed how to recreate the all-important ‘water-cooler moments’ in hybrid settings. Phooko said the EBRD had started scheduling in online ‘drop-in’ events in a bid to spark informal and unstructured social interactions. “It’s a way to start building up social capital again. You can attach it to existing programmes or groups, and you just drop in, and see who else turns up. I tend to do them sometimes in broader team meetings; we’ll start 10 minutes early, and people just talk to each other and then get onto the proper meeting.”

Siabi said that Microlink has set up lots of ways for staff to communicate with each other and with management through both formal and informal channels. As well as an internal messaging system, teams use WhatsApp, and the company also operates ‘town hall meetings’ once or twice a week where everyone, from the CEO to the newest recruit, can participate and speak freely. 

Making the office attractive to staff

The panel agreed that organisations needed to work hard at making the office a compelling offer, because too many colleagues were complaining that their in-office days were less productive than their home-working days. This requires thinking about how to design in accessibility and inclusive practices in the office workspace. Siabi said employers needed to get to the bottom of why people don’t feel as productive at work. “We’ve asked people, ‘why do you want to come back to the office?’ And in the same way, ‘why do you want to work from home?’ It’s all about knowing your staff and knowing what makes them be comfortable in doing their job.”

Dr Nasser Siabi

Maynard recommended building in specific days when all staff are encouraged to be in the office, and to ensure that this time is used for team-building activities rather than normal desk work which can be done just as easily from home. And she urged leaders to maintain COVID-safe practices so that those who are still worried about coronavirus feel more confident attending.

Bengio agreed, adding that employers ought to be thinking about the risks of future public health crises, and eliminating the need for people to touch surfaces or be crammed into enclosed spaces, for example.

Cost versus opportunity cost

Inevitably, the panel turned to the subject of the cost of making reasonable adjustments for all employees in a hybrid setting. Siabi echoed the comments of several participants at a previous Global Government Forum webinar on supporting people with disabilities into senior civil service roles by outlining the costs of not doing so. “Costs are hidden in terms of tribunals and legal challenges, in terms of absenteeism, in terms of presenteeism, and you have to recruit. We’ve done the analysis and we know that for every dollar you spend in putting in an accommodation, you will save US$10 if you do it properly. That’s based on thousands of surveys that we’ve done with employees that we’ve helped over the last 10 years.

“The cost gets buried because the cost of not doing it is higher than the cost of doing it.”

Garrett said his team had proved that the cost of supporting people for productivity through workplace adjustments is often low – below £1,000 (US$1,260) in most cases. So, if estates teams are making savings by rationalising property, they should reinvest some of those savings in tools and systems to equip people for productivity wherever they work, he suggested.

Leadership and communication

Maynard concluded that for civil service employers to make a success of this paradigm shift in working practices, it “will require leadership from the top and constant communication internally”.

“It’s so critical for leaders to get this right,” she said. “And it’s not easy. We mustn’t be afraid, even if we are leaders, to seek advice and assistance, if our workplaces are to be inclusive and to thrive.”

The Global Government Forum webinar ‘Adapting for individuals: creating inclusive workforces in the era of hybrid working’ was held on 5 May. You can watch the 75-minute webinar via our dedicated event page.

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About Tania Mason

Journalist and an expert in organisational and management issues.

2 Comments

  1. Vince Millett says:

    Well, this contradicts the government’s line:
    “The shift to remote and hybrid working has delivered many benefits for both employers and employees, including a better work-life balance and, in the main, higher productivity.”

    It either leads to higher productivity or we’re all lazy and should go back to the office. Which is it?

  2. Anonymous says:

    good info, thanks a lot

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