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Return to Office (RTO) strategies need to align with the diverse needs of today's workforce. 

Recently, I chatted with Megan Pierouchakos of Seramount, a senior director in talent and diversity, equity, and inclusion about how businesses can adapt their RTO strategies to support various demographics while maintaining business efficiency.

Understanding The Intersection Of RTO And DEI

At the core of this issue is the need to recognize individual preferences, perspectives, and expectations in shaping workplace cultures. This diversity in thought and need is particularly pronounced among underrepresented groups. 

For instance, research has shown a preference for remote work within certain demographics. This preference is not merely a matter of convenience but often stems from deeper needs related to personal circumstances, such as caregiving responsibilities, health concerns, or the pursuit of a better work-life balance. 

Upcoming Seramount research through the CDO Collaborative focuses on generational differences in the workplace. Among the findings: 

  • 41% of Gen Z employees want to work in a hybrid environment, primarily from home with one to two days on site. 
  • 34% of non-Gen Z employees would prefer to be fully remote. This shows companies must lead with intentionality when considering their return-to-office policies to avoid losing certain employee populations.

Ignoring these nuanced preferences can have far-reaching consequences. It can lead to reduced employee satisfaction and engagement, increased turnover, and the potential loss of valuable talent among historically excluded groups. 

Moreover, it can diminish the organization's reputation as an inclusive and forward-thinking employer, impacting its ability to attract diverse talent. 

The Value of Flexibility

In contrast, RTO strategies that are flexible and attuned to the needs of the workforce, empowering them to have greater control over their schedules and engage with their work in the place and time that makes the most sense in their lives.

Leadership plays a crucial role in navigating the intersection of RTO and DEI. It requires a thoughtful approach that balances business needs with empathy and understanding of individual circumstances. 

Active listening and creating channels for open communication where employees feel safe to express their preferences and concerns are just the first two steps. By doing this, leaders can gather invaluable insights that can inform more inclusive and effective RTO strategies that suit a variety of needs.

The Challenge: Women In The Workforce And RTO

The conversation about the impact of RTO on women in the workforce is a multi-faceted and critical one. While we have seen a rebound to pre-pandemic levels of women's employment, new challenges have arisen in the context of RTO mandates

One of the most pressing issues is the potential slowdown in women's promotion rates relative to their male counterparts. Such mandates do not adequately account for the unique challenges faced by women balancing family responsibilities and career aspirations.

Many women found that remote work provided them with the flexibility to manage their professional responsibilities alongside their roles as caregivers. As organizations transition back to office-centric models, there's a risk that this newfound flexibility could be lost, impacting women's career progression. 

Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

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Elevating Flexibility and Women

To address these challenges, forward thinking companies are offering a variety of flexible working arrangements, such as hybrid models, flexible hours, or job-sharing options. 

Drawing from previous research, Pierouchakos highlighted the importance of building meaningful connections within the framework of mentorship and sponsorship programs. These connections are crucial for women to break through the glass ceiling and ascend to leadership roles.  

“If you provide a psychologically safe environment for these connections to happen, this really does help change that inner network of senior leaders to then look more intentionally toward women and other underrepresented employees,” Pierouchakos said.

In a hybrid or remote work environment, the challenge is to ensure these meaningful connections are not lost. Virtual mentorship and sponsorship programs can be instrumental in this regard. Some key benefits include:

  • Provide platforms for women to engage with role models and sponsors, regardless of physical location
  • Help women build robust professional networks essential for career development
  • Assist the business in developing a diverse leadership pipeline and leadership team
  • Bring credibility to efforts around gender equity in the workplace.

The Role Of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

ERGs have proven to be a vital tool in addressing diverse needs across organizations, so why shouldn’t they influence your RTO policy as well? 

My experience consulting with companies on their RTO has provided me with a front-row seat to the impactful role ERGs play in modern corporate culture, particularly in adapting to the changing dynamics of the workplace post-pandemic.

I encourage my client companies to establish ERGs catering to specific demographics, such as parents and people with disabilities, which were previously underrepresented in these discussions.

This evolution marks a shift in recognizing the unique challenges and preferences these groups face in the context of returning to the office or adopting hybrid work models.

Specialized ERGs have become vital in articulating the needs and concerns of their respective demographics. For instance, ERGs for people with disabilities offer valuable perspectives on ensuring workplace accessibility and support in both remote and office settings.

Pierouchakos reinforced how the involvement of ERGs in the RTO planning process ensures that the strategies developed are not only inclusive but also practically applicable. 

“One of the things that was a major silver lining was just how more thoughtful and creative ERGs have been in their programming to facilitate RTO.

Megan Pierouchakos, Senior director of Talent and DEI at Seramount

As always, ERGs play a crucial role in facilitating dialogue between the workforce and management. They act as a bridge, conveying the concerns and recommendations of their members to the leadership. 

This dialogue fosters a deeper understanding within the leadership about the varied implications of RTO strategies on different employee demographics. And it's a two-way street: management gains insight into employee needs, and employees feel heard and valued.

How to engage ERGs on RTO Policy 

Here are some quick tips to ensure productive collaboration with ERGs on this return to office policies. 

Host Inclusive Listening Sessions

Meet with ERG leaders and members to gather insights and feedback on the return to office policies. Ensure that these sessions are structured to be inclusive, providing a safe space for all employees to voice their concerns, preferences, and suggestions.

Collaborate on Surveys and Polls

With the number of employee survey tools out there, it’s easy to work with ERGs to create and distribute surveys or polls that specifically ask questions related to the return to office. This can help gauge the overall sentiment and identify potential challenges. 

Establish a Feedback Loop

Create a transparent feedback loop where ERG members can provide ongoing input on the return to office policy as it is implemented and evolves.

This includes setting up regular check-ins with ERG leaders to discuss the impact of the policy, gather feedback on what is working, and explore necessary adjustments. Transparency about how feedback is being used to influence policy decisions is crucial to maintaining trust and engagement.

Empower ERG Leadership

Involving ERG leaders in the decision-making process can include forming advisory panels or committees that include ERG representatives. 

Communicate Clearly and Consistently

Ensure that all communication regarding the return to office policy is clear, consistent, and reaches all employees. Use ERGs as channels to disseminate information and updates, and to clarify any concerns or questions that may arise. Effective communication helps in managing expectations and reduces anxiety or resistance to policy changes.

A Future Of Flexibility And Purpose Driven Work

As we navigate the complex landscape of RTO and DEI, it's clear that flexibility and purpose-driven work environments are key, especially to reach Gen Z, who are, after all, the future. 

"When we talk about what Gen Z wants, they want flexibility," Pierouchakos said.

Key Takeaways

  • Customized RTO Approaches: Organizations need to develop RTO policies that consider individual preferences and circumstances, particularly for groups with unique needs like caregiving responsibilities or health concerns. 
  • Support for Women's Advancement: The transition back to office-centric work poses challenges for women, who benefited from the flexibility of remote work for balancing family and career. 
  • Role of ERGs in RTO Planning: ERGs are key players in making RTO strategies more inclusive by voicing the specific needs of different employee demographics. 
By Gleb Tsipursky

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky was lauded as “Office Whisperer” and “Hybrid Expert” by The New York Times for helping leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is a best selling author, consultant and behavioral scientist. A proud Ukrainian American, Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio.