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Key strategies to drive DEI efforts in the hybrid world of work

HR leaders from the region give us exclusive insights into policies and practices that strengthen organizational diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts in their hybrid working models By Asmaani Kumar

With organisations embracing hybrid working models over the last two years, we have seen that strategies often need to be customised per employee requirement.

Adaptability is critical if one wants to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce. While leaders often discuss the value of flexibility in driving productivity and engagement, burning questions about strengthening collaboration and belonging are often left unanswered.

And as we discuss over and over again the importance of sustaining an office work culture despite the absence of the watercooler, how do we ensure that gaps of DEI are bridged within hybrid teams? Expectations can vary wildly as members switch between working remotely and working from the office. It is very common for those working from home to feel somewhat disconnected from the rest of the team. This feeling can become more intense if the employee belongs to a minority community.

Unique challenges

The challenges around hybrid working models are quite unique. On the one hand, it’s vociferously demanded by the workforce as they’ve adapted to this working style over the course of the pandemic. But on the other hand, continued use of this model has been seen to exacerbate the feeling of disconnect if not implemented with foresight.

People Matters spoke with leaders from the region about successful implementation of the hybrid work model and efficient execution of diversity and inclusivity frameworks.

Building bridges for a sustained, meaningful change

In conversation with us, Paramdeep Singh Anand, CEO at FieldAssist, raised an important point about the importance of managing not just a single employee experience but rather employee’s life experiences in the hybrid set-up. One of the pressing challenges in realising the desired outcomes of any DEI initiative is a lack of emotional connection. This is usually because of the lack of connection with the employee’s virtual avatar. What becomes urgent

then is to redesign the approach with a people-first mindset.

“In today’s context of hybrid, flexible models, some pre-existing biases have become more visible, and this is where we see resistance stemming from. For example, the ‘experience bias’ – the thought that the way things have always been is the way things always have to be. Then there is the ‘distance bias’ – our preference towards those who are co-located or those we meet in person more often,” shared Ashish Kapoor, HR Director at Eaton.

Given the persistence of biases that often impact the outcomes of diversity and inclusion initiatives, it becomes an essential point in the conversation to understand the best ways to overcome this hurdle.

In a strong answer to this question, Roshni Rathi, Partner and Seema Bansal, Partner and Director at BCG India, emphasised, “Companies won’t have balanced workforces unless they approach diversity like any other business priority, with clear metrics to understand gaps and interventions targeted at fixing them. Many companies don’t have clear data on the diversity of their talent pipeline/ workforce. As a result, they cannot accurately identify problems or launch tailored interventions. Companies need to establish clear and appropriate metrics with regards to: recruitment, retention, advancement, and representation—along with equal pay. They must measure progress over time.”

Leadership's role in overcoming biases in a hybrid workplace

“The pandemic was a gamechanger in redefining the workplace, and it made the hybrid work model a reality. To create an equitable environment, leaders must set the tone from the top and lead by example,” advises Dev Deepika, Vice President & Head - Human Resources, India & Sri Lanka at Fiserv.

“Paying close attention to how the workplace is designed and managed helps keep employees motivated and reduces disparity. Since new rules of engagement have accelerated the need to accommodate employees in different work environments, businesses must be prepared to address their requests quickly and effectively. They also need to ensure each employee, whether in-office or working from home, feels like an integral part of the team. Leaders need to focus on creating inclusive work environments that encourage collaboration from all, irrespective of location,” he adds.

Engaging the leadership team in conversations regarding where biases might exist within the organisation is often the first step towards eliminating proximity bias and negating its impact, according to Rakhi Shaha, Vice President Human Resources, Mobileum.

She also believes in establishing a practice of making a concerted effort to get to know team members on a personal level.

“Empathy and vulnerability can be felt from screen to


screen, office room to office room, and it pays dividends. Do not assume but ask about people's needs, acknowledge them, and tailor your actions accordingly. Establish direct communication with co-workers who feel disconnected being from a minority group and see how they are doing. Make it a point to draw them into discussions. Be brave and acknowledge difficult situations, ask questions, and create space for people to openly share how they feel and what they need,” adds Shaha.

Outlining some of the programs that Synchrony has led, Vatika Kaura, vice-president of operations at the company, says, “Conducting periodic surveys, virtual roundtables, Ask Us Anything sessions and other collaboration activities were essential to emphasise that we treat all our employees equally, irrespective of whether they are at the office or working from home. These activities also take the pulse of the employees to understand what’s on their minds. They ensure we actively listen and respond to feedback.”

Leadership commitment critical

Rathi and Bansal from BCG India believe leaders must demonstrate their support for DEI by publicly speaking about it and establishing inclusive policies. At the end of the day, the most successful programs are outcomefocused, with specific targets for which leaders are accountable.

“Company leaders, with their influence and visibility, are uniquely positioned to role model behaviors, enable an inclusive environment, and make space for dialogue and programming. Line managers also play a critical role in ensuring that day-to-day experience for team members is free from bias and that systemic challenges are called out and addressed. To improve employees’ interactions with colleagues, direct managers, and leadership, leaders must focus on culture change. This is what we call the 1,000 daily touch points,” add Rathi and Bansal.

In a hybrid workplace, the touchpoints are often more than an employee can keep track of, given the unique intermix of remote and in-person interactions backed by technology interventions. What becomes fundamental then is to recognise the long gaps that negatively impact DEI's outcomes. In addition, given the unique role of leadership in spearheading these strategies, they need to fully understand the feelings of inclusion and build safe spaces with consistent and ongoing efforts, adapting to the changing contexts, expectations and experiences.