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Does Hybrid Work Mean a Return to a Two-Tier Workforce?


People working in open office
Image: fizkes -
American workplaces have largely moved from the early days of pandemic shutdowns and suddenly remote workforces. Many offices have finally settled into rhythms for remote work — just in time for management to grapple with new workplace questions: Who comes back to the office? How frequently must people come in? Most crucially — how will people's careers be affected by where they spend their working day?
Though many workplaces are currently opting for hybrid work models, Harvard University economics professor Claudia Goldin believes that hybrid work may come at a price, and not everyone will see the benefits. In a recent Acorns + CNBC article, Goldin warned of remote workers facing disparities in both opportunities and resources: This “could lead to certain individuals getting promotions, clients, getting the better machinery that might be doled out to those who were there versus those who weren’t there.”
“A historic disadvantage remote workers face is visibility and informal interaction, which are somewhat crucial,” Adam Galinsky, a professor of leadership and ethics at the Columbia Business School, said in the same article.
This divide between hybrid or in-office and remote employees can also adversely impact gains made in workplace diversity, particularly around women in the workplace. “Of those who aren’t [in the office], which would disproportionally women, we worry a ghetto would be produced,” Goldin said. In a survey from theSkimm, two-thirds of millennial women said remote work was a priority for them for several reasons (more time with family, less time commuting, better work-life balance, etc.). Additionally, the same amount agreed with the assessment that they are missing out on opportunities simply by not being in the office.
Another divide between remote and in-office participants has less to do with workplace dynamics and diversity and more to do with the tools white-collar workers typically use to communicate and collaborate, namely cloud-based video meeting services. Pre-pandemic, remote workers were often relegated second-class status in a meeting, often having their ideas and concerns not taken as seriously as in-room participants.
However, now with advancements in meeting technology, the reverse seems to have happened: Employees are now used to seeing everyone in the same-size squares on a single screen, and to resume the experience of having in-room participants lumped into a single video stream might feel awkward.
While concerns of creating a two-class system, or potentially a three-class system with hybrid work, shouldn’t be taken lightly, I do wonder if this discussion is missing one crucial element — what we learned during the pandemic. Old perceptions that remote workers were some channel-surfing slackers have been debunked by new experience and ongoing research. For instance, Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, has studied work-from-anywhere companies for the past six years and observed how productivity goes up when people can work remotely all of the time. Additionally, workplaces leaders are more intuitively aware of the needs of their workers in all locations.
“More and more companies are going to actually take a very active role in making sure that no one feels that now, because of the geography and locations they participate in,” Jeetu Patel, EVP & GM of security and collaboration business units for Cisco, said during a media pre-briefing for Cisco WebexOne. As part of that, IT, HR, and facilities departments will work to ensure office spaces are configured to optimize both in-room and remote participation, and workplaces will provide the tools for employees to work wherever, Patel added.
The communications and collaboration industry has also been actively working on bridging that remote and in-office divide with hybrid work-inspired devices and software features. For instance, the Poly E70 intelligent camera and X70 video bar works with Zoom Rooms Smart Gallery to take a single video feed and split it into three separate ones for optimal participant viewing. Additionally, devices like Jabra’s PanaCast 50 come with AI-based features that can detect active in-room speakers and dynamically adjust a video stream for optimal viewing.
Across IT, HR, and facility departments, workplace leaders have managed the shift to remote work, and many have been actively planning their workplace strategies for the future since the onset of the pandemic. With these departments working in closer proximity than ever before, a greater range of perspectives are being shared, which should ultimately create a more equitable work experience, regardless of where and how people work.
This article was originally published on October 28, 2021 (click here for the original article).