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Flexible working: the challenges of a two-tier workforce

Flexible working: the challenges of a two-tier workforce

Working a combination of hours in an actual office setting and a portion of the time remotely, frequently from home, is quickly becoming the norm. It accelerated during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, made possible by digital technology. Many people and organisations now favour it. Employers must first deal with its unintended consequences in order to benefit from it.

Before the pandemic, only about 5% of the workforce in the UK worked primarily from home, and 66% of employers either did not offer regular working from home at all or only offered it to 10% or fewer of their workforce. However, by July 2022, ONS figures revealed that the number of people in the UK who did their homework more than doubled, from 4.7 million to 9.9 million people, between October-December 2019 and January-March 2022.

While some workers now prefer to work entirely from home, research indicates that the majority would prefer a balance, spending some time each week in the office and the rest of the time working from home. Why? Since hybrid work provides employees with the best of both worlds. It enhances work/life balance without affecting social connections made at work. Additionally, it increases the talent pool that is available to an employer, for instance by enlarging its geographic recruitment catchment area.

However, unintended consequences of hybrid working can have potentially detrimental effects. The emergence of a two-tier workforce is the most noteworthy of these.


The Office for National Statistics' Labour Force Survey analysis revealed some regions of the nation are already turning into flexible "notspots," prompting the CIPD to issue a warning last year that the UK was in danger of developing a two-tier workforce when it comes to who has access to flexible working.

However, when there are disparities between the in-office and remote working experiences, a single company's workforce can also be a two-tier workforce. The most glaring disparities occur when those who are physically present receive benefits that those who work remotely don't and when those who work remotely are ignored or sidelined because they are less visible. Individuals are negatively impacted by this because there are fewer opportunities for advancement and promotion, for example, in the workplace. But by fuelling employee resentment and mistrust, increasing churn, and compromising productivity, it can also damage business.

Certain groups will likely be adversely impacted worse – women, for example, who are 26 per cent more likely than men to apply to work remotely. Among college graduates with young children, women want to work from home 50 per cent more than men, according to one study. Or younger workers – especially those at the earlier stages of their career, when much is learned simply by being physically around people and mentoring is most effective when done face-to-face.

Then there is the potential negative impact on different groups of minorities already underrepresented in the workforce. Digital access varies widely according to race, geography and income, numerous studies show. Lack of access to space and technology are just two hybrid working challenges faced by underrepresented minorities,

However, organisations will struggle to achieve the Diversity Equity and Inclusion goals toward which so many are currently working if ethnic minority, rural, and low-income workers are disadvantaged in a two-tier workforce.

Therefore, it is imperative for business to address hybrid equity issues. And it depends on developing a plan to guarantee that a hybrid workforce is truly inclusive, a plan that includes measures that:


  • Avoid proximity bias: Avoid favouring those who are present in person over those who are not. Make sure you don't overvalue face-to-face working, for example, when conducting a performance review. Make an effort to ensure that nobody participating remotely in a hybrid meeting feels left out. For instance, Google's strategy for creating an inclusive workforce prioritises "collaboration equity" by ensuring everyone has access to the resources, tools, and knowledge required to collaborate in their teams and perform their jobs well. This includes taking steps to make sure remote participants' input is sought after, utilising interactive tools to increase inclusivity during discussions, and creating meetings that are as accessible as possible.


  • Build an inclusive culture: It's critical to have a positive workplace culture so that everyone knows the organization's primary objectives and is moving in the same direction. To foster a sense of community among all employees, not just those physically present, ensure this is inclusive. For instance, ensure remote workers can participate in team activities; if not, find new team activities they can join. Culture Amp, an employee experience platform, promotes community through interest-based clubs like knitting, cooking, and dog appreciation and has a Slack channel for every city. For coworkers to acknowledge one another, the global online design platform Canva uses the integrated online culture platform Disco.


  • Encourage top-down hybrid working: When business executives hybrid work, they are likely to understand the importance of tackling proximity bias and how to do so better, and gain greater insight into remote working and two-tier workforce dynamics.


  • Bridge your workforce’s digital divide: Invest in the necessary equipment so that everyone on your staff, not just the ones who can afford it, has access to it and can participate fully when working remotely. This is crucial, especially for those with lower incomes and those who live and work in more rural areas with less developed infrastructure. Google's inclusive hybrid workforce approach ensures that infrastructure is created that encourages all employees to support one another by giving them the resources and assistance they need to build environments where they can connect with one another and develop a sense of shared identity, as well as by creating flexible office spaces.