Jobs and the Future of Work

Are online meetings and hybrid working making office cultures more equal?

Zoom meeting with a coffee.

Online meetings allow people to work easier from home. Image: Chris Montgomery/Unsplash

Emma Charlton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • The online meeting model faces challenges as some workers return to office.
  • 83% of workers prefer a hybrid work model according to Accenture research.
  • Women and minority-group men often feel shut out in meetings, research shows.
  • Hybrid working risks are creating two tracks of work and slowing the progress of women, says Bank of England policy-maker.

More of us have been in online meetings than ever over the past few years as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered offices and forced us to work remotely. But what’s the effect of these meetings on office cultures, and specifically on equality?

Are they levellers, allowing minority workers and those with caring responsibilities to fit more work around their day-to-day tasks? Or are they just another burden, perpetuating old office hierarchies and giving room for the same voices to be heard in a different medium?

As vaccine programmes advance around the world and more companies bring workers back to the office, the real challenge is managing the onset of “hybrid working” where some employees come back to the office full- or part-time, while others choose to stay remote.

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A bit of both

More than 80% of workers surveyed by Accenture say they prefer a hybrid work model because it marries the best things about work and home. Workers who embrace hybrid experience less burnout than those who work entirely onsite or entirely remotely, the survey said.

While the hybrid model is set to play a key role in the future of work, the risk is that those who choose to work more at home will be excluded from some elements of corporate life or have less of a voice in meetings or informal gatherings.

Work arrangements in place and time.
As the pandemic upends traditional work - what’s the impact on diversity? Image: HBR

Women risk falling behind their peers in the aftermath of the pandemic, as new patterns of working emerge, according to Bank of England policy-maker Catherine Mann, who said she could see two tracks emerging.

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“There are the people who are on the virtual track and people who are on a physical track,” Mann said according to a report in The Times. “We will pretty much know who’s going to be on which track, unfortunately.”

Water-cooler moments

In-person communication is difficult to replace, she said. “Virtual platforms are way better than they were even five years ago. But the extemporaneous, spontaneity - those are hard to replicate in a virtual setting.”

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Participation in meetings has long been a theme for those looking to improve company diversity - whether the gatherings are virtual or in person. A study of more than 1,000 female executives by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) showed that some people feel shut out in meetings, with women often uncomfortable speaking up, perhaps because they are more than twice as likely to be interrupted in group dialogue.

Men from minority groups feel similarly, according to separate HBR research.

“If organizations fail to address this issue, women and minorities will remain on the periphery, and in turn, your creativity and innovation will suffer,” the HBR says.

Some reports claim Zoom meetings are levelling the office playing field for some women because they're less likely to be interrupted by male colleagues online. Even so, that report in the Guardian also said that as non-carers return to the office, those who stay at home risk missing out on promotion.

The effects of the pandemic were already being felt more by women than men in terms of work, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report.

“Inequality is likely to be exacerbated by the dual impact of technology and the pandemic recession,” the report said. “Jobs held by lower-wage workers, women and younger workers were more deeply impacted in the first phase of the economic contraction.”

Microsoft has recognised and directly addressed the potential for hybrid working to create disparities and is taking steps to “help put everyone on equal footing in meetings”.

The company has developed hybrid meeting guidance to make sure all meeting attendees - both remote and in-person - feel equally empowered to participate.

Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, says his company's research shows a “hybrid paradox”, where people say they want the flexibility to work from anywhere, but they also crave in-person connections.

Projected percentage of employees working remotely, before and after the pandemic.
Hybrid working is here to stay. Image: Gartner/Intuition

With hybrid working here to stay, learning to navigate it is just another challenge arising in the aftermath of the global pandemic.

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