We Need to Foster Belonging in the Emerging Hybrid Workplace

July 30, 2021 John Rossheim

In normal times, after a week or two of vacation, you return to your office feeling like you fit right in; most of the people you work with are just steps away. But it’s quite another thing to return to the office just two or three days a week after a year or more of 100% remote. Your family photos have faded a bit, and everyone’s trying to wrap their brains around who works where and when.

There’s no getting around it: Even as the Covid-19 pandemic wanes, our sense of belonging to an organization is in for another rough ride. “For people in the office, it’s a lot easier to feel like they belong,” says Asfa Malik, founder and strategic advisor at GrowthMinded Consulting. “They can easily have lunches or drop by someone’s office.” But those who are working remote on any given day may feel like second-class citizens.

So this is a good time to look at the challenges of fostering belonging in a hybrid work paradigm, and to consider solutions. As organizations plot their futures, give promotions, and navigate a disrupted labor market, thoughtful leaders are pondering how each employee might answer this question: “Am I being included, equitably?”

How do you run a hybrid meeting?

“Whether people feel like they belong, whether DE&I [diversity, equity and inclusion] works or not, comes down to what happens in the room” in daily interactions, says Jennifer Benz, senior vice president at Segal Benz, a benefits communications firm.

So those who run meetings need to be intentional about bringing everyone into the conversation. “Give remote employees a voice in the room, ask for their input,” Malik says. She also suggests letting everyone take a turn hosting a regular meeting – compiling the agenda, deciding speakers, and so on.

Managers are rethinking every aspect of how meetings should be restructured when some participants are remote. “Create processes for how to engage in a hybrid way,” says Loren Margolis, MSW, CEO of Training & Leadership Success. “Everyone’s cameras should be on, even if they’re in the office.” Ask people to minimize texting among themselves when they’re in the office, and explain why, she suggests.

At the same time, acknowledge that it may be hard for those who do come in to the office to accept the reduced social bandwidth of videoconferences. Who among us hasn’t felt both anxious and bored in the countless screen meetings necessitated by the pandemic?

Belonging is all about equity.

The everyone-remote-all-the-time paradigm of 2020 was simple compared to the hybrid work world of 2021. Everyone was on the same playing field, even if that field was not level.

Now leaders need to do a lot of deep and detailed thinking about how decisions on place of work can affect equity. Consider two scenarios, and questions that they raise.

To come into a downtown workplace, an employee earning $40,000 must spend $18 for a round-trip commuter or a similar amount on gas and parking. This is much more of a disincentive to come in than it would be for someone earning $80,000. Does salary correlate with race and gender at your organization, as it does across the United States? Should your company begin or continue subsidizing employees’ commuting costs, even though they are lower with a hybrid schedule?

There are likely to be generational differences in attitude toward hybrid work arrangements. Millennials and Gen Zs want to come into the office, and they’ll be anxious when they can’t, says Malik. If older workers feel less compelled to work face-to-face with their colleagues and they come in less often, will their influence on the business dwindle? How can your company use technology and ground rules for meetings to combat such inequity?

You’ve got to ask.

Yes, engendering a sense of belonging among diverse workers in a hybrid environment is complicated. So “the most important thing a leader can do is ask, ‘What can we do to make you feel more included?’” Malik says. “Bring everyone into the conversation, whatever it’s about.”

It’s also important to avoid making assumptions about who will work or socialize in person and who won’t. “Don’t assume that people working remote won’t go to off-sites or an informal gathering after work,” says Malik. People are always glad to be invited, even if they can’t attend.

In sum, keep listening. “When you show you’re paying attention, it shows you’re being more equitable, because people have different needs,” says Malik.

When should everyone be in person?

When should an employer insist that all employees attend a meeting in person? The forced all-remote experience of the pandemic has produced a wide range of answers.

For 10 years Segal Benz has held a weekly 30-minute video meeting with all hands to give company updates and shout-outs. There’s also a week-long, annual off-site for everyone. Other than that, “there really are no key events that require everyone to be together in person,” says Benz.

But Tracy Duberman, president of The Leadership Development Group, says, “You need in-person meetings for key strategy and brainstorming.” Being left out of such meetings or having a poorly supported remote experience can injure an employee’s sense of belonging – and the organization misses out on remote workers’ potential contributions.

It comes down to leadership.

Ultimately, all of these tips and strategies may fail if your organization’s leaders don’t lead by example. If the CEO comes into the office nearly every day but urges everyone below C-level to stay home two days a week, the workforce may be left anxiously wondering what’s really expected.

“It’s elitist to think, ‘Well, I have a closed office, so it’s safe, and I’ll come in,’ when most others are in cubicles,” says Malik.

And as millions of us transition to hybrid work schedules, formal learning that includes topics around belonging is valuable for everyone in the organization. When leaders take workshops, they’re publicly acknowledging that “I, too, have blind spots,” Malik says.

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About the Author

John Rossheim

John Rossheim writes about healthcare, diversity, recruiting and human resources.

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