Hybrid work could create a two-tiered "class" system for employees, according to expert

Companies are juggling a mix of on-site and remote workers. The arrangement presents no shortage of complexities for managers; especially when hosting fair and inclusive meetings.

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After a year of fully remote work, hybrid offices are all the rage as some employees commute to the in-person office and others tune in via the Zoom room. While the arrangement allows employees to choose the environment best suited to their needs, the framework also presents a number of logistical and social challenges for managers such as hosting fair and inclusive hybrid meetings. There are a number of strategies managers can bear in mind and pitfalls to avoid to ensure they are creating an optimal and balanced work environment.

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"In a hybrid work environment, it can be a challenge for companies to make all employees feel as if they're part of the team as they work from varied locations. Some employees might be working from the road and living a digital nomad lifestyle, while others report into the office, and others are at home," said Jennifer Smith, chief marketing officer of Brightcove.

Hybrid workforce challenges

Some of the complexities associated with hybrid work are by no means exclusive to the format. In its most basic functionality, a standard Zoom call can act as a virtual extension of in-person meetings. As a result, many of the same social drawbacks inherent in traditional face-to-face meetings can be extended to the platform; especially as it relates to the bouquet of personality types across a team.

"Supervisors and managers need to consider that some people are introverts, and if all meetings are on video, not everyone is cut out to be a rock star on Zoom. As with in-person meetings or audio calls, it's easy for the same three people to dominate every 10-person conversation," Smith said.

To help remedy these situations, Smith suggested companies make certain "allowances for the quiet ones, who can sometimes be the most brilliant."

Hassan Osman, director at Cisco Systems and Udemy instructor who teaches a course on hybrid work management, warned that hybrid models could create a two-tiered class system for employees. In this setup, organizations may establish two different "employee experiences where those who spend more time in the office would be treated as first-class, and those who spend more time remotely would be treated as second-class."

These second-class employees may also feel left out and this framework could result in "potential leadership bias and favoritism toward onsite resources when it comes to promotions and career growth," Osman said.

This situation may also exacerbate concerns many remote employees had before the switch to the hybrid model. According to a Blind poll conducted in 2020, half of the respondents believed working from home negatively impacted their careers with many reporting that remote work had reduced internal and external networking opportunities.

Compared to onsite employees, he said, remote workers are often more siloed as managers in the office typically have more knowledge about what other employees in the office are working on, potentially leading to "isolationism" for remote workers.

"Managers should put in the extra effort to keep track of what they're working on, and most importantly, over-communicate with them to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction," Osman said. "Frequent check-ins by managers help remote team members feel as supported as their onsite peers."

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To avoid introducing this tier class system of sorts, Osman said companies can "constantly" emphasize inclusion, noting that one way to achieve this is by focusing on a "remote-first culture where the company defaults to working remotely" for all workers.

"This can be accomplished by ensuring that onsite and remote employees can access the company's data and systems the same way by leveraging centralized information systems and hybrid collaboration technologies," he continued.

During hybrid team meetings, he suggested having all employees tune in virtually regardless of their location on-site or remote; conducting these events "as if everyone is remote."

"A good best practice is to ask everyone to turn on their cameras and project a video feed of all remote employees on a conference room screen to make both groups feel like they're connected to each other," Osman said.

While video tools may have been the cornerstone of virtual collaboration during the pandemic, the format is not without its communicative limitations. Video meetings also pose the risk of introducing indeterminacy into work meetings, as the format lacks the nonverbal richness of in-person communication.

On this topic, Smith discussed the potential for video call miscues due to the limited exchange of body language, explaining that these factors can make it difficult when teams are "dealing with sensitive topics" or engaging with new coworkers.

"My leadership team has handled this cue deficit by getting to know one another on levels beyond the strictly professional. We all took personality tests, shared the results, and are keeping the findings handy," Smith said. "Not only was this a team-building exercise; it has made us better at seeking diverse input for creative problem-solving."

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For many hybrid professionals, round-the-clock Zoom meetings are a standard part of the remote workday. But there is a risk of overusing this platform for regular updates where another virtual collaboration tool may have been sufficient. For example, according to a May SurveyMonkey report, 32% of respondents said they found themselves thinking "this meeting could have been an email" most or all of the time.

This excessive and seemingly unnecessary screen time could only add to workforce fatigue at a time when workers are quitting at a high clip amid a so-called Great Resignation.

"Although we can get more done in less time with a Zoom call, we tend to schedule these calls back to back, meaning we have less interstitial time to make small talk, decompress, eat lunch, take a breath, recharge, and get creative than we do when we are in the office," Smith said. "Keep this in mind when scheduling, and watch out for burnout."

Additionally, Smith urged companies to not become complacent with remote work stating that teams need to preserve the freedoms associated with the arrangement and "continue to grow this equality even after the pandemic."

"The hybrid workplace has allowed us to use video to give everyone a sense of equality and treat all employees fairly," she said. "Everyone's finally on the same footing whether you're based in a different country, staying home to help with parenting, or choosing to work from home for the quality-of-life benefits."

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