Mixed experiences of hybrid working and the future of the diversity agenda

By on 25/05/2021 | Updated on 27/01/2022
Feeling connected even when remote: our panel explored how hybrid working both challenges and supports diversity and inclusion. Credit: Anemone123/Pixabay

Working from home can offer big benefits for some professionals – making life easier for those with caring responsibilities, for example. But others can suffer, particularly with regards to mental health. At a recent webinar, civil servants from around the world explored how governments can usher in new ways of working while protecting wellbeing and inclusion

While Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey has told employees they can work from home “forever”, the chief of Goldman Sachs has called remote working an “aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible”. For most organisations, however, the future is somewhere in the middle. Hybrid working – in which most employees split their working hours between home and office – is widely seen as the most likely outcome.

This changed set of working practices presents a new set of challenges and opportunities for all those working to address discrimination and improve equity within civil services. A recent webinar, hosted by Global Government Forum and supported by knowledge partner Google Cloud, bought together a panel of civil servants from around the world to explore how a future of hybrid working both enhances and challenges diversity and inclusion (D&I). Compared with the task of introducing the technology to support remote working, changing processes and cultures to ensure a positive impact on diversity looks like a much more complex task.

Protecting inclusion during lockdown

As the UK headed into the first lockdown last year, recalled Emma Green, head of diversity and inclusion at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), she quickly realised that decisions about where and how people could work would have profound implications for individuals, depending on their circumstances. “What we wanted to do was engage people as early as possible and try and ensure that we were as inclusive as we possibly could be,” she said.

Emma Green, head of diversity and inclusion, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, UK

The team at BEIS used an equality analysis tool to help them look at each decision and consider the “benefits, the potential pitfalls and how we might mitigate them,” recalled Green, considering each of the nine protected characteristics. “We also included socio-economic background and location as well to add another layer.”

As part of this process, the team consulted extensively with BEIS’s diversity networks. “We made sure that we had really, really close connections with our diversity networks and consulted with them on a regular basis around the drafts that we were creating,” she said. “We recognised that the people who were making some of these decisions probably weren’t as diverse as people who’d be affected by them.”

This tailoring meant, for example, that some people continued to spend time in largely empty offices. “One thing that we really took very seriously and wanted to make an exception for in a lot of our rules was around any issues of domestic abuse or mental health, to allow people the space to come into the office more often than they might otherwise have done,” Green said. 

Changing locations, changing cultures

Google Cloud went through a similar process, said Lalitha Stables, the firm’s head of partnerships and diversity, equity and inclusion lead for EMEA public sector. And the result, she believes, is a more inclusive working environment.

Lalitha Stables, head of partnerships and diversity, equity and inclusion lead, EMEA public sector, Google Cloud

“Video meetings have become more inclusive of global remote teams,” she said. “And with the shared informality of seeing each other’s homes and exchanging ideas of how to work together better and have healthy boundaries around technology, we’ve actually gained more empathy for our teammates. We’ve started seeing more of each other’s personal lives as well. Kids making guest appearances and dogs saying hello… personally, I’ve loved that,” she added.

Over the last year or so, commented Stables, existing employee networks – such as Black Googlers Network and Women@Google – have hosted additional online events to support employees, while she conducted training sessions on how to facilitate inclusive meetings. “That’s about practising good inclusive meeting habits like timetabling meetings around school schedules,” she said. “It’s also about ensuring everyone’s voice is heard. For some people, this 100% remote working has meant that their voice was actually heard more than in the office.”

The technical side of remote working was the “easiest part”, said Stables; it was much more difficult to ensure that people understand that their colleagues’ circumstances in lockdown might vary considerably from their own. “The most important thing is how we bring people on the journey of cultural change,” she said. “Employers more than ever before need to build flexibility and empathy into their culture to make life easier – especially for primary caregivers, who generally tend to be women.”

Dividing lines

One concern raised was that hybrid working could create a two-tier workforce, with those who are present in the office being given more opportunities than their physically remote colleagues. Performance management is part of the solution, according to Anil Arora, chief statistician at Statistics Canada. “We used to manage performances mainly by qualitative assessments,” he said. “And now we’ve gotten more and more towards quantitative assessments and looking at what are the actual metrics. I think we need to continue to build on that: not make it robotic and take out the human element, but to balance these things a little bit.”

Anil Arora, chief statistician, Statistics Canada

That said, Arora noted that we must also “find new ways so that people inject that human element into management.” Managers need to acknowledge individual circumstances and understand that the amount of time somebody spends on a task is a poor indicator of performance, he added. “We can’t think that downtime is always bad. Downtime and recharging are absolutely critical if we’re going to be innovative; if we’re going to be productive.” 

Part of the solution is to build empathy and emotional intelligence among leaders and managers, fostering the culture changes required to make hybrid working effective. “One of the things we’ve invested really heavily in is thinking about what kinds of skills – including emotional intelligence – our senior leaders need to have these conversations and be aware of these things,” Green said. “We’ve trained about 1,500 people around empathy and building empathy. And we’ve really found that helps people to just open up conversations and be more curious about each other.” 

Such traits are essential for middle managers too, according to Géraldine Dufort, principal adviser in the Diversity and Inclusion Office in the Directorate-General for Human Resources and Security at the European Commission. She pointed out that the organisation has between 1,000 and 1,200 people charged with managing teams of 15 to 20 people with highly diverse backgrounds. In such a situation, empathy is an essential attribute.  

Géraldine Dufort, principal adviser – Diversity and Inclusion Office, Directorate-General for Human Resources and Security, European Commission

“Middle managers tended to be recruited a lot on their expertise,” said Dufort, adding that this can mean their people management skills need further development. “Now, it’s not perfect, but there’s a lot more emphasis [on empathy] and there’s a lot less tolerance of bad managers. We’ve got networks of mentors and counsellors.”

Looking after employees’ mental health  

The panel was also unanimous on the need for managers to go the extra mile to support employees’ mental health, both during formal lockdowns and as hybrid working models are adopted.

“From day one, we made it a requirement for all our supervisors to touch base with our colleagues once a day,” said Arora. “That ability to just be able to share how people are feeling and be able to deal with those micro issues that creep up has made a huge difference. Our ability to bring humanity and humility into that management culture is making a difference.” 

For Green, tapping into BEIS’s employee networks has, again, been highly valuable. “If they’re hearing things in the diversity networks, particularly the mental health and wellbeing networks, we hear them too,” she said. “On top of that, we have a huge number of mental health first aiders across the department. These are regular staff who are trained to deal with mental health crises, and we ask them on a regular basis to talk us through the kinds of things they’re hearing. We’ve been getting a lot of information from that as well.” 

There is no one-size-fits all solution when it comes to the future of work. But it’s clear that tailoring the working environment to individuals means re-thinking not only physical infrastructure, but also culture, leadership and management – serving both remote professionals, and those in the office. And if the panel’s experiences are anything to go by, while there are challenges to overcome, a hybrid workforce may ultimately be a more inclusive one.

This Global Government Forum webinar was held on 29 April 2021, with the support of Google Cloud. You can watch the event via our events pages or below.

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