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How can hybrid working drive diversity and productivity?

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased employee demand for flexible working practices, but many business leaders remain skeptical about hybrid working arrangements

By: EBR - Posted: Thursday, May 26, 2022

A hybrid working model is critical for boosting diversity and productivity.
A hybrid working model is critical for boosting diversity and productivity.

by Mark Edward Rose*

Real estate has been catapulted onto the C-Suite agenda. The growing flow of workers returning to the office is forcing companies to review their entire workplace strategy. CEOs and CFOs are balancing the costs of the physical workplace against the benefits of having employees come together in one place. Research shows conclusively that the better the workplace, the more time employees want to spend there; the right type of space, in the right place, is key to attracting and retaining talent.

Effectiveness of hybrid work model

Employers want their teams back together in the office and employees want the same, but not all of the time. The previous “weekday, nine-to-five, in the office” paradigm appears to be a relic of the past. Many workers now prefer a hybrid arrangement that gives them the flexibility to work remotely for at least part of the week. Evidence also exists to show hybrid work arrangements can contribute to better organizational performance through higher employee engagement and lower turnover.

At the same time, many business leaders remain skeptical about the effectiveness of hybrid working. A significant proportion say they will require employees to be back in the office full time. The current focus of this debate essentially boils down to “employee quality of life versus corporate productivity”. This overlooks something crucial to harnessing the power and potential of a workforce, however: hybrid working can be a critical enabler of workplace Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I).

For those of us who believe that DE&I is non-negotiable, attracting diverse talent is a critical priority. This is where the hybrid work model comes into its own. This isn’t just about preferences or performance; the hybrid work model, when executed properly, specifically enables us to access talent within certain target groups. Here are three key examples:

1) Women with primary family care responsibilities

Attracting and retaining women who have family commitments has always been a major challenge. It was made worse by the Covid-19 crisis. Millions of women left the US workforce in 2020 due to parenting challenges caused by closures of schools and childcare facilities.

Many women express a particularly strong desire for flexible work arrangements to help deal with the particular challenge of balancing childcare schedules with commuting. This is compounded for those with additional care responsibilities, for example, those with aging parents or family members with disabilities.

The hybrid model supports the unique lifestyle needs of working women. It effectively levels the workplace by removing and mitigating challenges that would otherwise become career and/or quality of life impediments.

2) People with physical or mental health conditions

Commuting poses a significant and often literal barrier to many of the millions of people with some form of disability. Remote working can enable them to integrate into the organisation and contribute more easily, particularly those whose homes have been adapted to accommodate their needs. This doesn’t remove the need for us to address ongoing challenges with public transport and workplace design, but it can help those who continue to face these challenges every day.

It’s also important to remember that not all disabilities are physical: 18% of the American population has a diagnosed anxiety disorder. Many of these individuals have a hard time coming into the office five days a week, particularly when their commute is lengthy, complicated, or relies on crowded public transit. Contemporary workplace design now caters to neurodiversity, offering easy access to private or quieter spaces as and when needed, but many spaces remain challenging for those with heightened sensitivities.

A hybrid work model, particularly one that includes a physical office designed to accommodate fluctuating uses, enables every professional to get engaged, work productively, and feel included in their work community – regardless of the challenges they may face.

3) People facing economic housing limitations

Even prior to the pandemic we had seen a steady increase in the length of commutes, with growing numbers of "super commuters" travelling more than 90 minutes each way due to cost-of-living issues in the neighbourhoods around their offices.

Many workers end up being effectively excluded from job opportunities simply because they cannot afford to live within reasonable commuting distance from the office. This makes the location of one’s home an implicit qualification for employment and creates hiring barriers for workers in many demographic groups, especially marginalised populations and minorities.

A hybrid work model again provides the best of both worlds: the technology and tools to work from home for a given number of days a week, combined with less frequent (and thus more tolerable) commutes to the office to collaborate or attend team meetings.

Flexible work practices, including homeworking, have been an option for many years, but they have been given a huge stimulus by the recent pandemic. The skepticism around “shirking from home” and the stigma often attached to those with alternative work patterns have largely disappeared. Managers have learned how to effectively lead and co-ordinate remote teams. Technology has advanced and been more widely adopted such that hardware and software solutions to support flexible working have become the norm.

Companies now need to focus on how to embrace these changes and take advantage of the opportunity they offer to drive their DE&I strategy forward. The right workplace, coupled with the right workplace strategy, can deliver benefits all round: the work-life balance employees seek, the high levels of engagement and productivity the CEO demands, and a diverse and equitable workforce that will drive the innovation and growth that is the key to genuine competitive advantage. When implemented appropriately, hybrid working can be a true win-win-win for all stakeholders.

*Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Avison Young

**first published in: www.weforum.org

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