As companies chart the next phase of hybrid work, many have embraced new ways of working that allow employees greater flexibility while still coming together for moments that matter. However, it’s also important to recognize that the impact of hybrid work on employee experience is more complex than meets the eye.
For employees, the experience of hybrid work has wildly varied in key areas such as their sense of belonging and work-life balance. Some employees have embraced all the benefits that come with working from home. For others, coming into the office may equate to more opportunities for career advancement and casual interactions with their peers. And for companies, hybrid work has presented new challenges when it comes to maintaining a strong culture and ensuring fairness when employees are more dispersed than ever before and showing up to work in differing ways.
The differentiated nature of hybrid work can foster unequal playing fields across teams when implemented without purposeful intention and focus. Work environments that do not allow all employees to feel comfortable in bringing their authentic selves to work–virtually and in person–risk stifling the diversity of thought and creativity that are integral to the productivity of any successful business.
Companies must also remain vigilant in identifying new ways inequality may take root in a hybrid work environment and leaders have a responsibility to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) when developing guidelines that meet the shifting needs of their employees. Talent attraction and retention will ultimately depend on how well organizations can navigate and adapt to these mostly uncharted waters.
Start with the why
At its core, inequality permeates our world beyond interpersonal interaction, and prejudice gains its power through its position within our institutions and structures. One-off initiatives enable increased understanding among peers, but systemic issues require systemic solutions.
For leaders, it’s essential to identify why DEI is critical to the success of their company and foundational to achieving their purpose and vision. Establishing DEI as a business imperative is the first step to ensuring it persists as a tenet of company culture regardless of new ways of work.
Hybrid events and campaigns can be helpful tools for community building, but it’s important to acknowledge activity-based programs as only a piece rather than the totality of the solution. Activity-based programs that lead to unifying moments are a first step towards creating an investment in inclusivity by uplifting new perspectives. However, individual experiences can vary greatly across any event or campaign, so efforts should extend into the heart of every organization.
Lead with an employee-first mindset
Pioneering systemic change and forging DEI as a withstanding practice throughout an organization requires collaboration. The best way to construct inclusive operations and practices is to value diverse perspectives from the ideation process.
For leaders and people managers, it can be difficult to get DEI right in a hybrid environment. Luckily, the people who know best about what conditions are needed for them to do their best work are right in front of you–lean on them. The key to hybrid models being a force towards increased equality and inclusion is leveraging employees and their diverse perspectives as we craft new systems.
Managers should also model this approach when inviting employees to participate in setting manageable and clear expectations on how they will operate as a team to work towards shared goals. There’s no perfect approach to hybrid work, which is why it’s even more important to tailor a model with the unique input of each team member. As leaders, our role should be to facilitate an environment where people feel not only empowered but also safe to contribute through encouraging and dynamic discourse. Disagreements are inevitable. However, there is endless opportunity in the creativity and innovation that compromise can inspire.
While solutions may vary across teams, once a community agreement has been reached, remain steadfast and committed to the defined norms of hybrid work. When each team member can play a role in designing community norms and operations, they are more invested in ensuring successful outcomes and willing to be flexible to achieve them. Rather than mandating a process to follow, reach a shared set of goals that are based on mutual investment and uplifting the individual strengths of your employees.
Use data to bring about change
Typically, the metrics most closely examined regarding DEI are focused on the lens of representation. While headcount numbers tracing underinvested minorities (URM) percentages in leadership and across roles can be great for ensuring a diverse workforce, those data points do little to tell a story about whether underinvested employees feel appreciated.
Without inclusion, employees cannot fully employ the rich diversity of their perspectives to positively impact business outcomes. In a hybrid environment, it’s easy for some employees to feel isolated or excluded, especially those who engage less frequently in person. As a result, hybrid work requires a renewed and reimagined investment in information gathering around employee engagement.
Asking thoughtful and mindful questions about the benefits and the potential burdens of the hybrid work environment allows teams to set reasonable benchmarks and community standards. Through employee surveys and focus groups, leaders should ask poignant questions about inclusion to identify growth areas and gauge employee sentiment. Anecdotal comments and free-response questions reveal more intimate perspectives and insights that may not be captured in numerical data. Collecting and using this data as a guiding star for decision-making is crucial to evading declines in retention or wors–mass attrition.
In today’s world, dynamic patterns of talent acquisition and retention will continue to demand businesses adjust their DEI strategy to meet the changing needs of their work models and employees. Across the economic headwinds that the future holds, DEI will be the key differentiator between companies that withstand forthcoming challenges and those that crumble under pressure. That is why across industries, companies should develop hybrid work with DEI as a focal point–or expect to lose top talent to the companies that do.
Kenneth Imo is the global head of diversity and inclusion at Adobe.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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