Opportunities and pitfalls -fairness and inclusion as we return to work

After months of theoretical ‘what if’ scenario planning for the return to work, end of lockdown roadmaps are finally being rolled out

The next few months will begin to see hybrid working plans being put in practice in earnest, but in truth, as we enter another new period of change, it is likely that whatever plans organisations put in place for the return to work, they’ll need to continue to tweak them month by month as the real-world bites.

As well as balancing the people requirements of the business, a growing concern is what might the impact be on inclusion and the concept of ‘fairness’ as teams return to work. Whilst some are desperate for a return to office life, others have flourished whilst working from home, and there’s much debate about what this representation could look like in a business – especially over the long-term, with some more visibly present than others.

What could the impact of this be on promotions, for example? Or will those opting to work from home more to flex around family be treated fairly for pay rises if less physically visible? It all requires careful thought and planning.  

Here are a few of the potential pitfalls and the opportunities that HR and team leaders might want to think about:


  • Breaking down barriers with personal interaction (the ‘informal lunch’ concept): For many, working online has been a great opportunity to get to know their colleagues from a different perspective. Whether that’s by having a sneak peek into their home lives – perhaps the quirks of home decoration style, colleagues’ pets, partners and/or children or simply which books people read, Zoom has been a great way to open up different conversations with colleagues and build deeper connections.
  • Set out clear expectations on what ‘hybrid’ means: With so many commentary pieces on hybrid working, lots of people will have self-defined what it means to them. But this will cause unrealistic expectations that may not always be met. As teams return to the office, now is the time for management teams to work with HR colleagues to define what ‘flexible working’ really means for them.  How might this work in practice, and what might be the impact on teams, individuals, and the business culture? Some decisions may feel challenging, but setting out a clear roadmap for your thinking will allow clarity for all on expectations on all sides.
  • Redevelop and design workspace to allow employees to thrive: Assuming not everyone will be in the office all of the time, what opportunities do you have to get creative with the space you have? Think through the office design – the balance between meeting space, co-working space and offices may need to evolve. Some workers may prefer a quiet workspace, whereas others may want opportunities to collaborate – so consider different ‘zones’ for employees to make the most of their time in the office, with plenty of space for teams to meet as they need to.
  • Performance by agreed output, not by perception: Consider how to keep the playing field level by setting staff objectives by specific and measurable outputs – across those in the office and those working remotely. That way, at the annual review stage, HR teams can be more comfortable that performance ratings given are based on achieving goals and not purely on perception.
  • Recruiting outside of your current pool – if hybrid working remains: Many firms were not hiring during the pandemic, so whilst flexible working became the norm, this didn’t always lead to new opportunities for a wider selection of hires. If the option of hybrid working does stick, firms will have an added incentive to cast the net wider when recruiting as staff are less likely to be required to be based near a head office or other location.

Potential pitfalls

  • The value of face time – and the balance of choice of working days for homeworkers: One aspect of a company culture that is often flagged as a challenge for marginalised groups is ‘face time’ with leaders. This is perceived as an important performance for recognition and career development. Inevitably those who can make it in will get more facetime with leaders and be perceived as making an effort to come into the office. So, where you extend flexible/hybrid working options, be wary of allowing workers to choose the days they aren’t in the office.  If some team members are only in on days when leaders cannot make it, they may fall foul of the subtle impact of face-time.  Apple, for example, has recently announced a return to three days in the office for all but has set the expectation that Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays will be the minimum expectation.  There will need to be a balance between allowing flexibility and recognising the potential for negative impact on career progression in some organisations over time of lack of face time.
  • Watercooler conversations and cross-fertilising ideas: In a Zoom-oriented world, you will mostly be invited to meetings that involve projects you are working on. It may not often be you connect with – and seldom have extra time to have informal conversations with – peers from across teams and departments.  These interactions are key for many organisations looking to cross-fertilise ideas and drive innovative thinking (whether formally or informally). So, whilst some employees are back in the office and have this opportunity, those still working remotely will not.  It’s therefore important that when flexible team members are in, that they have some time in their day allocated to ‘networking’ or at least free time to connect and meet peers, not in their direct teams.
  • Online vs offline: Inclusion in team meetings and training: Anyone who has team members back in the office may well have faced the challenge of some colleagues being online and others logging in together from one room. Inevitably, those in the room end up having side conversations or sharing glances or short exchanges. This will lead to less efficient meetings and those not in the room to potentially feel less able to contribute unless managed effectively. One approach is to suggest every team member logs on from their own laptop so that all participants have similar experiences. This doesn’t remove the fact that those in the office may well ‘catch up’ informally after any meeting, but at least ensures meetings or training are delivered in as inclusive a way as possible.
  • Losing ‘commuting’ time as productive work time:  As we’ve all got used to life out of the office, many have saved time by not having to commute. But this time is often filled with additional calls and online meetings. Whilst it hasn’t been the case for everyone, many of these meetings and catch-ups can happen earlier in the morning or into the early evening. Once commuting starts again. However, we will begin to see a gulf develop between those that commute and have more limited time windows – and those that don’t. Notwithstanding other parental or caring responsibilities that may eat into time, additional commuting time will reduce the available time for online meetings – with more senior team members diary commitments probably taking priority. So as your teams do return to the office, keep track of how diaries and key meetings are managed – and who may be missing out.
  • Vaccinated vs unvaccinated: While an individual’s vaccination status may well remain private, there may be occasions when this may impact an individual’s role – for example, working on a sensitive client site or needing to travel for work. There will not be one hard and fast rule that will fit every organisation, but as a first stage, mapping out a list of where vaccination status may be something that will impact workplace activity is a good place to start. In terms of colleagues treatment of others who may not have been vaccinated, this should be treated in the same way as other personal choices – in that any discriminatory behaviour or harassment, as a result, should be clearly called out and dealt with professionally.
  • Expect the unexpected and keep communicating: One lesson from COVID-19 has been the value of communication.  To such an extent that overcommunication has rarely been raised as a concern.  So don’t be afraid to keep watching, asking and listening – and recognising the era of change will still be upon us for some time to come, which means ongoing impact in different ways for different individuals.

As we all enter the next phase of a changing work environment, there will be much to consider.  The pointers above should be a good place to start as you think about the potential inclusion implications – and there will be many unexpected ones to prepare for as well.

By Patrick Voss, a managing director at Impetus & Momentum, working with leaders in organisations to build programmes that impact both drive commercial growth and build inclusive cultures.


Patrick Voss

Patrick Voss is a managing director at Jeito Consulting.

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