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Leading for Inclusion in a Hybrid Work Environment

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Thu Jul 06 2023

Leading for Inclusion in a Hybrid Work Environment
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Occasionally, we encounter a “perfect storm” where multiple factors coalesce to wreak havoc. For many organizations, such a storm is brewing as low levels of inclusivity—where employees feel excluded at work rather than feeling able to contribute and be respected—are magnified by hybrid work, where employees spend a significant portion of their working hours in physical isolation from team members.

The benefits of an inclusive work culture, including improved decision making and greater capacity for innovation, are out of reach for organizations where many employees feel excluded from decision making, socialization, and other critical elements of work. In these instances, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision how working remotely might compound such feelings.

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For its part, the hybrid work environment is a reality that appears to be with us to stay. The Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, for example, notes that 70 percent of firms of all sizes plan to implement hybrid working arrangements. And while it may not be clear whether things will improve in the future, there is evidence that most organizations do not foster an inclusive environment. Compounding the problem, according to research conducted by my organization, approximately one in three leaders tend to overestimate their own inclusivity, perceiving themselves as more inclusive than their colleagues and subordinates report them to be.

To effectively compete in the constantly shifting landscape of today’s business world, leaders must get a grip on the fundamentals of inclusivity and understand how inclusivity issues may play out in a hybrid work environment.

To do so, start by considering two things. First, general assumptions about people’s reasons for working from home and how they experience it may be built on false premises. Second, the interplay between hybrid work and inclusivity is largely experienced by individuals through the lens of their fundamental interpersonal needs (which we’ll define in this article).

Don’t Assume Anything About Remote Workers’ Preferences

Not everyone who works from home does so for a quiet or isolated workspace. Some may have to work from home due to family or other personal circumstances. However, those working from the office may not necessarily do so because they crave more personal interaction but because they have determined that working remotely is not feasible.

So, it’s not safe to assume that people are getting what they want from a work-from-home setup.

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External clues into what a co-worker wants and needs from their work experience may be misleading. An individual who consistently turns off their camera during Zoom calls may not necessarily be indicating a desire for less interaction, and conversely, someone who frequently turns their camera on may not be seeking a high degree of interaction. In either of these cases, one can easily formulate alternative motives for these behaviors.

Quantifying Interpersonal Needs

How do you accurately interpret behavioral cues to determine what your team members need from their hybrid work experience? Fortunately, there’s a psychological model that quantifies this.

The FIRO-B (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation) model (disclosure: my company sells the FIRO-B assessment) measures the fundamental needs for interpersonal interaction that drive much of human behavior. Among several other dimensions, it identifies Expressed and Wanted needs for Inclusion:

  • Those with high Expressed needs for Inclusion tend to involve others in their activities.

  • Those with high Wanted Inclusion needs tend to want to be included.

It’s all too easy to assume that people have the same Wanted needs that we do. For instance, a leader with low Wanted needs for Inclusion might assume the remote workers they manage want the same level of interaction they want. In their mind, they’re giving teammates the same room to breathe that they prefer. But if their team members have high Wanted needs for Inclusion, they may interpret this as being left out of decision making, and the lack of social interaction may be a source of stress and resentment.

If this scenario seems obvious, consider an alternative situation where a leader with high Wanted needs for Inclusion may assume everyone wants to be invited to everything, just as they do. In a hybrid environment, this may manifest in behaviors such as constantly dropping in on team members through IM/chat or arranging several virtual meetings. For employees with low Wanted Inclusion needs, this may be perceived as meddlesome or indicate a lack of trust. And while the leader’s behavior may come from a sincere desire to foster an inclusive culture, it can, in fact, have the opposite effect.

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Bridging a Gap of Understanding Regarding Interpersonal Needs

Either way, the tendency to assume people have the same interpersonal needs that we do can serve as a barrier to an inclusive culture. To bridge this gap, leaders should strive to discover their team’s interpersonal needs by taking the time to get to know them better and using psychometrically validated assessments. Throughout this process, look for insights into their:

  • Level of interest in being part of a group

  • Desire to have influence, control over their situation, lead, or take on responsibility

  • Interest in building close relationships and developing rapport with their colleagues

Leaders should then size up these needs in comparison to their own needs. Once those are clearly defined, they can more accurately appraise how their behavior matches their team’s needs, working toward creating a hybrid work environment that strikes a balance that maximizes the feeling of inclusion experienced by all team members.

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