By Audrey Goodson Kingo
Erica Volini, global human capital leader at Deloitte, calls herself the "ultimate road warrior."
When her son was born in 2018, they traveled the globe together. Within the first year of his life, he had logged 72,000 miles.
Then the pandemic brought business trips to a screeching halt.
Now Volini believes a new hybrid way of working is on the horizon, empowering employees to choose not just where they work, but also how they work, who they work with, and what they work on. It has the potential to provide many women with the flexibility they need to get ahead — if companies do it the right way. That’s the caveat that has experts concerned.
While remote work brought a host of benefits for those who had the option, the hybrid workforce of the future has the potential to create a two-tiered system — one where work-from-home employees are siloed in jobs that don’t lead to promotion while office employees have easy access to the knowledge and networks necessary to get ahead.
Guess which group is more likely to include women?
Hybrid Is Here to Stay
No hellish commutes in rush hour traffic. No coworkers coughing on you during meetings. Sweatpants. There’s plenty to love about working from home. But after a year of extreme Zoom fatigue, many people crave IRL connection and collaboration. Ergo, hybrid seems like the perfect solution. A survey by Harvard Business School Online of 1,500 professionals found that 61% would like to work from home two to three days a week, while 27% hope to work remotely full-time. Only 18% want to go back to the office full-time.
They’re likely to get what they want. In today’s tight labor market, employees have a lot of bargaining power, and leaders are aware that a rigid requirement for in-office work could lead to a mass exodus. Plus, productivity and profits soared for many Fortune 500 companies last year, convincing previously skeptical executives that their employees could successfully work from home. A just-released survey by the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit membership organization consisting of nearly 300 CEOs, found that 71% of respondents with Manhattan offices said they would be pursuing a hybrid approach as employees head back to buildings.
The Perils for Women’s Advancement
The flexibility to work from home is an enticing benefit for many moms and people with caregiving responsibilities (who are more likely to be women). The problem, says Anita Williams Woolley, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, is hybrid "might end up inadvertently creating status and opportunity differences as a function of who is in the office and who isn’t."
This is a particularly big risk for organizations that decide it’s cost-effective to operate with less office space, and create entire job categories that don’t have the opportunity to be in the office.
"If it’s true that the people who are in the office are getting more access to higher-level leaders in the organization, then inherently they’re going to build better relationships and pick up on more subtle pieces of information that can help them get ahead," she explains.
Even employees who work from home just a couple days a week can miss out.
"One problem with hybrid arrangements is people who are co-located will more easily pass information to each other, and even if it’s not intentional, they will forget to share it with the people who are remote, so it could end up making the people in the office look more competent."
Execution Is Key
If moms and caregivers disproportionately flock to flexible roles, companies will have to be careful the move doesn’t pull them off the path for promotion — an outcome that would undoubtedly reduce the ranks of women in executive roles.
Dr. Williams Woolley, who studies team collaboration and performance, says organizations must ensure remote workers have equal access to information (by, for example, requiring all employees to dial in from their own device during meetings) and networking opportunities (including through formal mentorship and sponsorship programs). Though it might stifle the flexibility employees want, she also thinks it’s best if the cadence of in-office days are designated on a team-by-team basis. And just as organizations that are serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion avoid hiring underrepresented groups all in the same job function, they should do the same for employees who work from home. Companies should also track promotions by work arrangement (in-office, fully remote, or hybrid) to identify and fix potential pipeline problems.
Ultimately, experts say, it’s about changing how we manage work.
"Part of the challenge for companies is philosophical in that it requires letting go of control and reorienting management from facetime to results," says John Budd, Ph.D., a Professor and the Land Grant Chair and Director of the Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies at the University of Minnesota. "This requires breaking the longstanding mindsets of managers knowing best and employees will shirk if not monitored."
Volini worries executive teams might be embracing hybrid without training team leaders how to effectively manage in the new environment. "We’re not seeing enough investment in how team leaders can create a culture of flexibility, trust, and empowerment," she says.
"You have to put yourself in the shoes of every individual — that’s the kind of empathy and active listening that we need from leaders," she continues. "I don’t think people understand how different that is from just managing day-to-day work when everyone is sitting right in front of you. It’s a completely different ball game, and that’s what’s going to make or break whether this is going to work moving forward."