Explore diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.

Let’s explore return to work policies and their alternatives.


Workplace Policies for Diverse Workforces

Patricia Kaziro

Returning to the workplace can elicit a range of responses for people who switched to working from home during the pandemic. In the US this past summer I had several conversations with employees in different industries who had recently been asked to return to the office 4-5 days per week. They had lots of different views on what working from home or the office meant for them. What are some of the factors that influence our different responses to working from home vs working in the office?

Working from home during enforced lockdowns allowed people to connect in with co-workers for meetings, then have the physical space to work in their preferred way. For some, that meant a more casual dress code, for others, the time to substitute a daily commute with daily exercise and for others, being able to show up more comfortably.

Although there’s been much talk in the last few years about bringing your whole self to work it’s evident that not all workplaces have enacted the idea in practice. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that as more companies require employees to return to the office, remote employees can be at a disadvantage for career advancement due to proximity bias, where managers forget about them or assume they are less productive than in-person employees.1. After past experiences of racism and discrimination in the workplace there are an increasing number of employees who are prioritising their mental health. Research by Future Forum found that 3% of Black professional ‘knowledge workers’ wanted to return to full-time in-office work, compared with 21% of white professionals and that hybrid and remote work options increased Black employees’ sense of belonging at work and ability to manage stress. Is there a correlation with this research and the fact that Black women in the US are the fastest growing demographic of entrepreneurs? An inclusive culture that provides physical and psychological safety from microaggressions and discrimination, as well as career advancement and leadership opportunities in the company, are important considerations to create equitable workplaces. If all team members are supported to return to a safe workplace with equal opportunities, they will not have to manage stress through working from home and leaving roles to access leadership opportunities provided through entrepreneurship.

For a long time, traditional employers have believed that in-person work is essential for collaboration, innovation, connection, and productivity. However, as a business owner leading a small team through the pandemic, I experienced firsthand that remote work can also be effective, with its own challenges and unique opportunities. Research has shown that Gen Z tend to be more ambivalent or not as engaged within the workplace, compared to other generations. A study by Gallup Poll in 2022, showed that 54% of Gen Z employees reported ambivalence or disengagement2. Additionally, 73% of Gen Z employees (aged 18-22) are lonelier than any other generation, according to a study by the Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index3. One factor for decreased engagement with the workplace may be that Gen Z employees started their careers in remote or hybrid work arrangements, which limited opportunities to build deep professional relationships in person at the start of their careers.

A clear incentive about working from home is the convenience, more so if your workstation is comfortable and ergonomic. This needs to be a consideration for employers when assessing their future workplace policies and accessibility to technology, internet, ergonomic workspaces and the psycho-social needs of different team members, as we all have different working styles, preferences and needs for connection and access to resources.

Companies need to consider the inclusivity of their culture, prior to creating a one-size-fits-all workplace policies for diverse workforces, who have increasingly diverse needs. For the first time in history there are five generations working within a workplace, including the ‘sandwich generation’ who have caring responsibilities for children and ageing parents; and early career gen z employees who may have spent the formative years in their profession working from home with reduced opportunities for social connection and learning ‘on-the-job’. Do Gen Zs need more social contact and need to develop their soft skill capabilities and communication skills through in-person interaction and engagement? Introverts may also have divergent needs (up to 40% of the population) and thrive from flexible work arrangements where they can recharge their energy levels at home, whilst thriving in terms of productivity levels.

Photo by Unsplash

Senior leaders and executives need to remember that they create the culture as modelled through their behaviour and that junior team members are likely to emulate work patterns as defined by senior leaders. If senior leaders are not present in the office, why would mid career and junior employees feel compelled to follow suit? It raises an interesting point to consider with some successful business leaders offering alternate models for coming into the office. Scott Farquhar, CEO of Atlassian, which has been rated #7 on Best Places to Work, adheres to the company’s “Team Anywhere” policy, implemented in 2020. Scott goes into the office once a quarter and believes that flexible work allows employees to manage increasing cost-of-living pressures by choosing to live in a cheaper location, without worrying about how it might affect their work.

The very real risk of creating blanket company policies that don’t respond to employee sentiment and different needs is that your talent may well leave the company to seek the employment conditions that work better with their lifestyle. So how can CEOs and decision makers best decide on next steps to take about asking employees to return to work? People and business leaders can make the process easier by considering the approach below:

  1. Conduct an anonymous survey and ask your team what their preferences on being in the workplace are. Be specific – what does their ideal week look like to aid their workflow, happiness, productivity and commitments or responsibilities outside of work?
  2. Ask your team what changes they would like to see in the workplace to enhance working from the office.
  3. Ask your team whether the workplace and culture could be more inclusive and what would help them fit in better.
  4. Conduct an audit on any technological issues that create a digital divide between employees and the company. Is it worth switching softwares, conducting training for employees or resolving any technical issues that create inequality in working?
  5. Consider reimbursing employees for costs incurred with working from home, or alternatively incentivise working from the office.
  6. What meaningful, structured connection points would aid attending the workplace more frequently or allow for greater connecting in hybrid or remote teams?
  7. Review or create a mental health policy that acknowledges the health and wellbeing of your workforce and the divergent needs of team members and subsets of demographics within your workforce. Does productivity increase when the mental health and wellbeing and different needs of your workforce are addressed? What are the positive health, financial and talent retention outcomes that can be measured?


Inclusive Work Cultures Solve Diverse Needs

Duncan Smith

How can companies include people with different needs and lived experiences, with a focus on people who may not have had a positive experience in their workplace in the past and are hesitant to return to their workplace?

The place to start answering this question is to consider that all people have different needs and different lived experiences. While we’re focusing on people who may not have had positive experiences in their workplace in the past and are hesitant about returning, we need to expand the question to include all of us, and then to become curious.

For each of us, what is our ideal work situation? Where we can feel comfortable, where we can feel productive, and where we can contribute to the best of our ability? What’s the environment that is going to help each of us to do that?

Photo by BetterUp

Before the pandemic, I noticed that in many organizations, there was a great reluctance to allow flexibility. There were a lot of instances where clients would say to me, “you can’t possibly do this job flexibly,” particularly referring to senior level roles. To me, this response indicates a lack of creativity and flexibility in thinking about how work gets done.

And of course the pandemic showed that it was possible —  everyone was working from home, everyone was working flexibly, which demonstrated that the attitude of, “oh no, you couldn’t possibly do this job flexibly” was incorrect.

So now we have organisations wanting people to come back to the workplace, trying to weigh up the benefits of having people physically present in the workplace as opposed to people working remotely or working from home.

I think where we need to start is by looking at the assumptions that we’re making. We know on one level, that everyone is different;  at the same time, we go through life having our experiences of how the world works, and there’s a level at which we assume that other people are experiencing life in a similar way —  we tend often not to think outside of our own lived experience.

In my own experience, I know people who are very happy to work from home and have no interest in going back into the workplace. I also know people who do not want to work from home, and are keen to return to the office.  In some cases, home is not an environment where they can be productive because there are distractions — maybe there are young children or other family members requiring care that makes concentrating more difficult. Maybe it’s a noisy environment. Maybe it’s not a safe environment — there are people who value going into the workplace as a way of getting away from a home environment in which they are not comfortable. The important thing is not to assume that what’s good for one person is going to be good for another.

How do you find out what’s best for each person, and how do you respond? This answer is simple: have the conversation, then assess what capabilities and resources the organization has and needs to respond to its people. Find out what’s going to be most helpful to people, what’s going to enable them to provide the results that they’re capable of.

Photo by Redd F.

The solutions to this issue need to be ones that engage all people, leadership and employees, to work together – to ensure that the people who are affected by a decision are part of the decision-making process from the beginning. As a leader, this means letting go of a sense it’s your job to make all the decisions and then tell people what those decisions are. It means what we might call collaborative leadership: you’re collaborating with the people affected by the decision.

Next, if we want people to return to the workplace, they need to feel that it is safe for them to do so. The consultant Steve Hanamura talks about four levels of safety:  physical safety, political safety, emotional safety, and spiritual safety. He says that you must create a setting where people will feel safe, or you can’t make any progress in what you’re trying to do. Particularly, you can’t make progress in having challenging conversations about what the workplace is going to look like, who’s in the workplace and who’s not, about equity, about any aspect of diversity, about the dynamics between people, or about what inclusion actually looks like, unless you have addressed these four levels of safety.

Leadership of course has a critical role to play.  All leadership starts with the self, with self-awareness. So as leaders consider the question of people transitioning back into the workplace, they must start by asking themselves: “What do I think about it? What do I feel about it?“ Whether you’re a leader or whether you’re an employee, does the topic bring up anxiety for you? This is also an opportunity to notice any limiting beliefs, any conscious or unconscious bias. What do you believe about whether people ought to be in the workplace or ought to have the capacity to work from home? We all have preferences. We will all continue to be biased. As Professor Iris Bohnet of Harvard has said, “the question is not, ‘am I biased?’ The question is, ‘which bias am I using at the moment?’” What judgments am I making about whether people should be back in the workplace or not? And how do those judgments affect the way I am able to respond in this situation?

Perhaps we think that if people work from home, they’ll be less productive, they’re just going to be taking coffee breaks or going out or doing things with their friends and not working. In contrast, a Stanford study of 16 000 workers found that working from home increased productivity by 13% over a period of 9 months4. This was due to employees taking fewer breaks and sick days, as well as a quieter and more convenient work environment. Workers also reported improved work satisfaction and a 50% reduction in attrition rates. Furthermore, A survey by ConnectSolutions found that 77% of remote workers report increased productivity, with 30% completing more work in less time and 24% completing more work in the same amount of time5.

Employers and managers may have a deep desire to control how people are doing their work, looking at inputs and the process rather than looking at the outputs and facts relating to productivity and working from home.

If we’re going to be mindful of peoples’ different needs, if we’re going to be inclusive, then we can offer an invitation to ourselves and to others to hold judgemental thoughts lightly, to take the perspective of, “oh, isn’t that interesting? That’s a perspective. It’s just a thought. It’s just a thought that I happen to hang onto. What if I held it more lightly and had the capacity to be more flexible?”  As you start to hold your own thoughts more lightly, you also offer that possibility to others so that the topic of returning to the workplace becomes an exploration.

Our ability to self-reflect, which is a critical component of leadership, enables us to express our thoughts and our feelings. Can we sit with ambiguity, so that the answer is not one or the other, allowing the possibility of multiple solutions that are tailored to each individual person to get the best result for everyone affected?

These thoughts, these opinions, those are not the problem. It’s how we relate to those thoughts that make all the difference. If we are willing to question and apply critical thinking to our own experience of the world, then we have flexibility and opportunity to create environments where people can thrive in multiple ways. This gift of self-reflection: the capacity to pause and to step back, enables us to have greater clarity, greater presence, and greater flexibility.

And this, I think, is the solution for how companies can include people with different needs and lived experiences — it’s that capacity for flexibility to engage the people affected in the process of creating the solutions that will work well for them, and that will also work well for the organization.

What are your insights and takeaways?

Share your thoughts in the comments! Follow Impact Business School for more enriching discussions.

Patricia Kaziro is the Director of Global Learning Solutions at Impact Business School, empowering CEOs and business leaders to spearhead impact-driven ventures and foster positive change. With an academic background in Sociology, Education (Social Ecology), Business Commercialisation and Sustainable Living, Patricia brings over fifteen years of experience as a people leader in business and community programs. 

Duncan Smith, Impact Business School’s first Expert-in-Residence, holds a BA in Comparative Religion from Trinity College and an M.Ed. from Harvard with a focus on Organizational Behavior and Adult Learning. With a background as an advisor, mentor, and author, Duncan is dedicated to fostering inclusive workplaces globally, drawing on his extensive experience in organizational culture change across 24 countries on 4 continents.



  1. Masunaga, S. (2023, August 8). Remote work gave them a reprieve from racism. they don’t want to go back. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2023-08-08/remote-work-racism-reprieve-return-to-office
  2. Fernandez, J., Landis, K., & Lee, J. (2023, January 18). Helping gen Z employees find their place at work. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2023/01/helping-gen-z-employees-find-their-place-at-work
  3. ibid.
  4. Apollo Technical. (2023, January 3). Surprising working from Home Productivity Statistics (2023). Apollo Technical LLC. https://www.apollotechnical.com/working-from-home-productivity-statistics/#:~:text=Several%20studies%20over%20the%20past,and%20are%2047%25%20more%20productive.
  5. ibid.


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