How to democratize the hybrid workplace experience

We often talk about in-office workers and remote workers as two different groups with different needs.

And they are: remote workers enjoy more flexibility over their schedule, put in more hours, and are on average more productive than their in-office counterparts.

But workplace designs need to account for both.

Democratizing the workplace takes away the fear of elitism or one group getting preferential treatment over the other.

How can you do this? By designing your office, your systems, and essentially your company culture to accommodate those who are not there.

Why do we need to democratize the hybrid workplace?

As the pandemic winds down and companies invite employees back to physical offices, we’re seeing the biggest shakeup in the labor market in decades.

Millions of employees are leaving to pursue better work-life balance, job satisfaction, wellness, or simply a workplace where they feel they have a say in the decision-making process.

This has created a competitive hiring market where employees are willing to take their chances to seek companies that help them achieve those lifestyle goals.

A workplace that’s designed to accommodate remote and hybrid employees will help you attract and retain top talent as well as tackle proximity bias so that everyone has a fair chance of succeeding in your company.

Attract and retain top talent

According to the U.S Bureau of Statistics, 68.9 million Americans left their jobs last year and 47.4 million (68.8%) of those were voluntary quits.

A huge majority (63%) of that number left because they didn’t see enough opportunities to advance in their careers and because there wasn’t enough flexibility to choose their working hours.

When we piece all that data together, a pattern emerges: workers are leaving rigidly structured companies for workplaces where they feel they have more room to advance in their careers and where they can achieve better work-life balance.

You might be running a hybrid work model but employees will still churn if they sense hostility towards them for working remotely. Further, you’ll have a hard time attracting fresh talent unless remote employees are satisfied that they can expect equal opportunities for career growth as their in-office colleagues.

Tackle proximity bias & signal that remote employees have fair career prospects with your organization

Proximity bias is the notion that employees who work from the office will be perceived as more productive and will end up with more opportunities to advance in their careers vs. those working remotely.

As many companies switch to a hybrid model, it’s kind of like saying: you can work from home, but don’t expect equal career opportunities with employees who are willing to be physically present.

This is not a fringe idea and we’ve had executives like Ken Griffin, founder of hedge fund firm Citadel publicly state that “employees just starting out are risking their career advancement by continuing to work remotely.”

In an environment where in-office employees have an edge by default, companies need to proactively adopt policies and practices designed to level the playing field, advocate for remote employees, and ensure the virtual workplace is designed for equity.

What are the benefits of a democratized office culture?

Redesigning the workplace to advocate for remote employees’ well-being gets down to the root of your company’s culture and focuses on giving everyone an equal opportunity to grow professionally and pursue a better work-life balance.

This in turn produces a myriad of benefits, such as:

Better employee engagement

Research shows that only 36% of employees were engaged in their work while 13% were actively disengaged and miserable in the workplace.

Judging by those figures, it’s little wonder why we’ve seen employees leaving companies en masse to focus on their mental health and find a new definition of work with the employees at its center.

Initiatives as basic as giving remote employees feedback on a regular basis can improve engagement and their drive towards work by 300% more than without it. Integrating remote employees and letting them know they have an equal place on the team drives employee participation and helps them stay productive.

Improved profitability

Talent democratization also means increasing diversity–and not just going about it as a box-checking exercise.

A McKinsey & Co. study revealed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 25% more likely to record above-average profitability compared to organizations in the fourth quartile.

Those at the top for gender and ethnic diversity were 36% more likely to outperform bottom-level peers in profitability.

Digging into that data simply tells us that democratized workplaces develop better diversity of thought which can be channeled to serve customers better and bring in more revenue.

Access to a larger talent pool

While the Economist reports that companies are struggling to fill vacant positions, research by CareerBuilder shows remote positions are getting seven times (700%) more applicants on average.

Adopting remote-friendly policies across your company will create an attractive option for employees who’re looking to work flexibly without sacrificing career growth and compensation.

Higher retention rates

A full 39% of remote employees will consider quitting if they’re forced to work from an office all the time. Advocating for your remote employees will help you cut down on that churn and retain employees.

That advocacy goes beyond letting employees work remotely some or all of the time but should focus on creating a working environment where remote employees see themselves as stakeholders who can voice their concerns and have access to the same tools that their in-person colleagues have at work.

How companies are navigating workplace democratization

What are companies doing to build belonging for remote workers even as their employees return back to the office?

What metrics do you use to measure the impact of the efforts you make on worker participation? It all boils down to the willingness to change, the resources available, and the culture you want to create.

We’ll examine how industry giants like Google and Microsoft are navigating the return back to the office and how you can adapt their tactics to design your workplace around the needs of your employees who’re not there.

Google’s campfire setup for group calls

Google aims to operate a hybrid work model post-pandemic where 60% of Googlers come into the office a few days a week, 20% work from their new campuses, and 20% work from home essentially indefinitely.

To help launch that vision, Google has been testing several hybrid meeting setups designed to improve communication between office-based and remote employees. One of such is Google’s Campfire meeting setup that has office employees sitting semicircular opposite their remote colleagues who’re connecting through video.

Microsoft’s conference table redesign

The traditional conference boat-shaped conference table created a scenario where meeting attendees couldn’t face the camera and participants often focused on those nearer vs. the main speaker.

Quoting Microsoft’s chief scientist, Jaime Teevan, “The risk of hybrid meetings is that in-person attendees become anonymous faces in a room, while remote attendees are left speaking into a void, not knowing if they are seen or heard, or how to jump in and take a turn.”

With that in mind, Microsoft’s new U-shaped conference table has been designed to help in-person attendees focus and connect with their remote colleagues.

Recognize small victories across all teams —Make remote employees feel just as appreciated as those in-office

Thanks to video conferencing tools like Whereby and Around, it’s easier than ever to send teammates thumbs up on a video call.

That’s great, but you can go even further with a culture of positive feedback where remote employees feel just as appreciated as those working from the office.

This can be as simple as a weekly standup (with an emphasis on remote employees) where employees share their wins or asking employees to send out at least one shout-out for work well done to another team member every week.

Think of it as a step towards more workplace democracy designed to give your employees (in-office and remote alike) a bigger say over how your company runs.

Food —if you’re offering in-office food, send remote employees a food experience so they feel included

Tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have world-class catering services for employees based on campus and it’s often a given that remote employees shouldn’t expect the same perks as in-person workers.

But providing the same food experience to your remote employees can help them feel included and reinforces that they don’t have to sacrifice any upside of the office experience for choosing a more flexible lifestyle.

You can expand this to offering meal vouchers, subscriptions to HelloFresh or Swile, or an occasional care package from their favorite bakery.

Equal tech stack— provide the same tech capabilities and advantages both to in-office and remote employees

Remote workers can be out of sight and out of mind if there’s no strong case for advocating for them and provisioning the tools they use on a day-to-day basis.

You can change that by making it an IT priority to grant remote employees access to the tools (including software, hardware, etc.) and assistance they need to do their work. 

Create inclusive workplaces designed to accommodate remote employees

According to Buffer’s 2022 State of Remote Work Report, 45% of employees noted that career growth can be tougher for remote workers to achieve.

But that hasn’t stopped the tide of millions of employees quitting to pursue better opportunities where they can work flexibly and have equal chances of success at work.

Whether you choose to go remote-friendly or remote-first, reconstructing your company’s culture to accommodate remote workers will help you create an equitable workplace where you can attract and retain the best talent, grow your profits, and promote a healthy work-life balance.