Hybrid working has both advantages and risks for inclusion. By providing employees with greater autonomy over when and where they work, hybrid working offers a more equitable workplace for team members who might otherwise face challenges in participating fully, supporting wellbeing, performance, and productivity. Examples include carers on non-traditional schedules, staff with longer commutes, and staff with disabilities for which the commute or office environment presents challenges. Most staff benefit in some way from a hybrid workplace as means of helping them manage the challenges of traditional schedules and balancing work-life. Management theorists have long recognised job control and autonomy as positive for employee engagement.

Conversely, hybrid working can weaken interpersonal trust and perceptions of belonging, which develop from positive interactions among colleagues. Work motivation literature highlights the importance of strong and supportive work relationships for employee engagement. The literature on high-performing teams also recognises the value of interpersonal trust for the open sharing of ideas and willingness to collaborate with team members. Relationships develop from sharing personal information, which is more difficult in a virtual environment. It can also be harder to read others in a virtual setting and to know when someone needs support. Physical distance can lead to psychological distance.

Inclusive leaders are proactive in working with team members to develop a hybrid working plan for the team that balances individual preferences with business needs. This includes ways to simulate casual office interactions virtually and opportunities for face-to-face interaction. Inclusive leaders also recognise the importance of regularly checking in with their staff and promoting supportive connections across a hybrid team so that no one feels they are being left to solve problems on their own.

Leaders must also be alert to the risks of fault lines or subgroups developing in teams between colleagues who return to the office full-time and others who work remotely. Subgroups increase the risk of interpersonal conflict and reduce team cohesion and performance; they also reduce team member satisfaction and increase turnover. Inclusive leaders recognise the risk of faultlines and seek to manage that risk by strengthening their messaging of one team, promoting opportunities for working closely with all team members irrespective of location, paying attention to information flow, and setting a hybrid working plan that encourages interactions among all team members.

Alongside belonging, it’s important that leaders understand the impact hybrid working has on other aspects of inclusion—respect, safety, and equity.  Some argue that hybrid working enhances workplace safety for employees from traditionally marginalised backgrounds because it reduces their experience of everyday bias. It’s also been suggested that virtual meeting platforms level the playing field. But hybrid working is not a silver bullet for safer and fairer workplaces. Everyday exclusionary behaviours can occur in a hybrid setting. Perhaps you don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name on a video call, but because it is difficult to get their attention in a hybrid setting to ask them how to pronounce it, you avoid addressing them altogether. Whether or not team members have their cameras on or off might vary according to who is speaking and send subtle messages about the perceived value of an individual’s contributions. Also, hybrid meetings (where some participants are together in an office space and others are online) are problematic for inclusion. Frequently, a side discussion occurs in the room that is not heard by those on the call, and those on the call can have difficulties reading the body language and facial expressions of those in the room. Best practice inclusive hybrid meetings are ‘one online, all online’.

Consider also the risk for inclusion when different employee cohorts adopt hybrid working in ways that perpetuate stereotypes. If women choose to work remotely more often compared with men, for example, this can have implications for the progression of women, particularly if the cultural setting values face-time over output and visibility or where relationships take precedence over performance in decision-making. In hybrid environments, it is critically important that staff are assessed against objective performance measures. Without objective performance measures, our brains outsource decision-making to automatic processes, and our biases drive our assessments.

Leaders must also pay attention to the equitable development of staff. In an office setting, it’s easier to pick up tacit information and develop new skills from observing others than in a virtual setting. This is most important for new joiners but is relevant for all staff. Inclusive leaders work with staff members on development plans that recognise the value of office work for growth and progression.