robu_s -

Avoiding the two-tier workforce in the third workplace

The new world of hybrid working is sometimes referred to as the third workplace. Yet just as firms are having to deal with the ‘great resignation’, they are in danger of unwittingly creating a two-tier workforce

At a time when skills shortages are rife and the so-called great resignation is in full flow, addressing diversity and inclusion issues effectively is likely to have an important role to play in staff retention terms.

As Perrine Farque, founder and chief executive of DEI consultancy Inspired Human, points out: “Diversity and inclusion [D&I] is as important as ever, if not more so. Employers know they need to retain employees to be successful and so require a solid strategy to do so. It’s tough to attract people, but if you’re able to retain those you have, it makes a big difference.”

Offering flexible or hybrid working is vital in this context, she believes, as it can help to create a more inclusive environment, particularly for carers and people with disabilities who may find it difficult to travel to an office each day. The approach also makes it easier for employers to tap into a wider and more diverse talent pool outside of their immediate area of operation, and even in different geographies around the world.

But there are downsides too. An important one, says Toby Mildon, D&I architect and founder of D&I consultancy Mildon, relates to the mental and physical health and wellbeing challenges that can stem from feelings of isolation when working remotely or having an inadequately set up working space at home.

“Employers should be mindful of the need for balance,” he says. “There are people who really enjoy working from home, or prefer to do so because of a disability or health condition, but there are those who are eager to get back into the office as they miss the social connection, so both have to be supported.”

Another major issue is the risk of creating a two-tier workforce. “The problem is distance bias, which is about the preference we all have for what is closest to us in terms of time and space,” says Mildon. “This means we have a bias towards those in the same room as us, which can lead to unconscious discrimination.”

This is backed up by data from the Office for National Statistics, which revealed in April that people who worked mainly from home in the years 2012 to 2017 were less than half as likely to be promoted as their office-based colleagues, and were also less likely to obtain training. Between 2013 and 2020, it was 38% less probable that home workers would receive a bonus.

How can employers get it right?

What can employers do to avoid such pitfalls? One thing Inspired Human’s Farque recommends is collecting regular team feedback by using quick, weekly pulse surveys to understand the experience of office, remote and hybrid workers, the aim being to identify any unintended discrimination. Reverse mentoring can also prove useful in providing employees with a means of sharing their experiences with senior leaders.

On the promotion side of things, meanwhile, creating and sharing strategies and guidelines with team members to enable transparency is also valuable, not least to ensure everyone knows what the requirements are to progress.

Most crucial of all, though, Farque believes, is for leaders and managers to consciously set the tone and role-model the behaviour they expect to see among their staff. Because dealing with hybrid teams equitably is not part of the usual management training rulebook, however, she advises investing in additional learning and development here.

Mildon, on the other hand, believes there are lots of “little, everyday bits of inclusion” that can make a big difference too. These include simple things, such as ensuring that when remote employees dial into a meeting where others are physically present, they are invited to speak first. Alternatively, everyone could attend the event virtually.

Digital tools, such as whiteboards and instant messaging, are also useful in enabling team members to communicate, collaborate and keep each other in the loop. But as Mildon points out, while there are lots of tools on the market that can help here.

“It’s not necessarily about the technology,” he says. “It’s really about how people behave, which means it’s important to bring these various issues to their consciousness. It’s not about reinventing the wheel though – it’s about doing the small things.”

Two organisations that are working hard to get it right are Intel and Okta.


Although most of Intel’s employees are still working from home and have yet to move to a hybrid working model, the company believes taking an inclusive approach will be key to getting the transition right.

As a result, the chip manufacturer, which employs about 110,600 staff in 50 countries, intends to “empower and encourage people to work where and how they’ll be most productive”, says Amber Wiseley, the organisation’s vice-president of global benefits.

To this end, it has introduced three key working models. A hybrid approach, which applies to most staff, will see them splitting their time between working remotely and working in the office, based on what works best for them, their team and the work they are engaged in. The second covers roles, such as those in factories and laboratories, that need to be onsite, although hybrid-eligible employees can choose this option too. The final category is people who, due to the nature of their work, operate on a remote basis the majority of the time, with only occasional trips into the office.

“Technology is fundamental to bridging the gap between being on-site or remote as it enables seamless collaboration so we can tackle any equity and travel challenges”
Amber Wiseley, Intel

Wiseley says the approach is intended to make working life more inclusive by providing employees with more choice. Other key goals are to “attract and retain the best talent and reshape our infrastructure to help employees be more productive and creative”.

But Wiseley also stresses that, because it is early days, the company does not yet “have all the answers” and “there’s still a lot we don’t know about the challenges”. As a result, the aim is to approach the situation “with a mindset of agility and learning” as “it’s about progress over perfection, so we’ll keep on iterating” with the help of staff input.

To ensure the employee experience is as smooth as possible wherever people are located, the organisation’s technology teams are currently “in the early explore phase” to understand how tech, such as video conferencing, can best be used to support collaboration and innovation. “Technology is fundamental to bridging the gap between being on-site or remote as it enables seamless collaboration so we can tackle any equity and travel challenges,” says Wiseley.

In terms of the supplier’s offices, meanwhile, it is “transitioning to a hotel-style design”. Architects are in the process of evaluating how to make it easy for employees to collaborate with others no matter where they are located and how best to create a sense of community. This multi-year transition is unlikely to be fixed, but will adjust and change over time in line with the organisation’s needs, Wiseley explains.

“People are on much more of a level playing when everyone’s on a virtual call, but people miss each other, so there’s something important about human connection,” she concludes. “With the hybrid model, we’ll be organic about purpose and productivity as we want to find the right balance.” 


In a bid to support diversity, equity and inclusion in a hybrid working context, Okta is revamping its office portfolio, creating “cultural champions” and introducing a number of policies around virtual etiquette. While the cloud-based identity and access management software supplier originally adopted a hybrid or “dynamic” working approach in 2019, just before the pandemic struck, it is now taking the move a step further.

Samantha Fisher, the firm’s head of dynamic work, explains what its approach looks like: “The majority of the organisation can choose where and when to work as it’s arranged around flexible hours, which means the work day is a non-linear one. We’ve moved into more of a project mode and are empowering employees to make their own choice in relation to geography, time, location and their team to make it more inclusive.”

“We’ve moved into more of a project mode and are empowering employees to make their own choice in relation to geography, time, location and their team to make it more inclusive”
Samantha Fisher, Okta

While the San Francisco-based company used to hire mostly in the vicinity of its main offices or expected employees to relocate, recruitment is now increasingly taking place all over the world, which Fisher believes has helped boost diversity. But this shift in recruitment strategy has also led the organisation to change its approach to real estate to make it less “headquarters-centric”. The aim now is to open up a series of smaller, “boutique” offices around the world to act as “culture hubs, and collaboration and community spaces”.

“It means our portfolio will expand so there’s an office, a partner solution or coworking space in areas where our people live,” says Fisher. “There’s a particular piece around inclusion here as we want places where employees feel a sense of belonging and can fully immerse themselves in the company culture, connect with others and work from the lounge when they need to.”

The supplier is also harnessing facilities management data to better understand how different areas and rooms in its offices are used. The idea is to adjust them accordingly if they are being under- or overused. “With hybrid work, there’ll be a different office population from day to day, so flexibility is critical,” says Fisher.

For those who do not have easy access to the office, meanwhile, the aim is to create “culture champions”, who will take a lead role in bringing employees together for regular social events. “It’s about enabling a feeling of belonging and connection to the organisation outside of your work team by creating new connections with people who live in the same geographical area as you,” says Fisher. Similarly, “ambassadors” will also be created within the office environment to “curate and create experiences for teams as they come together”, she adds.

But because it is more difficult to ensure hybrid workers feel included than if they are fully remote or permanently in the office, Fisher has introduced a number of policies around virtual etiquette. These include recording video meetings for people in other time zones who are unable to attend, and ensuring everyone is given the space to contribute equitably whether they are introverts or extroverts, in-person or online.

“It feels very basic, but you have to address it head-on in a hybrid environment,” she says. “Things happened more organically when everyone was together in the office, but in a mixed environment, it’s more challenging.”

Read more about the new normal of work


Read more on Collaboration software and productivity software

Data Center
Data Management