The COVID-19 pandemic has forced employers and employees to completely reconsider what work and workspaces should look like. Many of these conversations have focused on the creation of a “hybrid workplace,” one where technology merges in-person and remote workflows to increase productivity and empower collaboration. This technological transformation is helping to ease logistics around remote work during the pandemic, but its greatest promise lies in its potential as a cultural facilitator. If used to support efforts toward greater equity and inclusion, technological hybridization may finally empower us to recognize, discuss and strengthen the deep cultural hybridity that already exists in our workplaces.
To some organizational leaders, the term “cultural hybridity” in the context of the workplace may sound strange, since organizations tend to conceive of culture as something shaped from the top down. Just like in the wider world, however, workplace culture is determined primarily from the bottom up, by the many individuals who participate in it. Technological hybridization is making the talent market increasingly place-less, bringing geographically distant workers together more easily and frequently than ever before. In other words, technology is allowing workplaces to become even more diverse. Organizations that understand this dynamic and consciously create systems to nurture a more diverse and inclusive workplace culture will not only improve their employee experience, but craft better consumer experiences and products as well.
Many organizations have taken some steps toward creating such a workplace, motivated by our broader societal reckoning with racial injustice, discrimination and bias. But diversity, equity and inclusion are too often reduced to abstraction: slices of a demographic pie chart or statements of solidarity. This is understandable—capturing the full range of identity, opinion, and perspective in a globalized workplace is incredibly difficult and messy—but it is untenable. Such abstractions often function as another form of top-down cultural reinforcement that minimizes individuals’ experiences and identities. As COVID-19 forces us to rethink what the workplace can and should be, we must lean into the challenges of true diversity. We must leverage the same technologies that are transforming collaboration and productivity to transform culture and representation.
Hybrid identity is a fundamental aspect of our humanity: we can be simultaneously a parent and a child, a mentor and a friend, a patriot and a dissident. We all represent more than one identity. But for a long time, multiracial Americans were denied the dignity of having their identities officially recognized: the category “multiracial” first appeared on the US census in the year 2000.
I remember this because I grew up on the hyphen of “Black-White.” Living on the hyphen in America means creating who you are in a society that says you are neither and both. At times my cultural hybridity offers me powerful perspective, but it has also created serious confusion on the road to finding myself. Feeling secure in one’s identity is never easy, but it is especially difficult for the millions of Americans who identify as multiracial, multiethnic or multicultural. As much as we want to believe that we alone decide our identity, the reality is that the way society sees us will always affect how we see ourselves. When our self-identifications conflict with socially-assigned labels, identities, or stereotypes, it reshapes our sense of self and belonging. What happens to an individual’s sense of self and belonging when their society suppresses the language that recognizes the existence their identity, as in the case of the census?
These issues are just as important in the workplace as they are in society at large. While organizations aren’t obligated to assist employees along their individual paths to self-discovery, both employers and employees are beginning to realize that better understanding and responding to each other’s identities can be mutually beneficial. For employees, it results in greater satisfaction, comfort and psychological safety at work. And employees who feel psychologically safe—feel that they belong, are valued, and can express their true identities and ideas—are more productive, effective, and even generate more revenue. New technology can and should play a central role in creating better recognition and understanding of identity in the workplace, especially as more employees are working remotely.
While traditional demographic surveys are category-prescriptive, new channels of communication and expression enabled by technological hybridization will make it easier than ever for workers to tell their employers who they are, in their own words and on their own terms. By giving employees the power to determine the available categories of identity rather than the employer, everyone gets a clearer picture of the true diversity of their workplace and can more accurately measure an organization’s progress toward its DEI goals. But this transformation must not be limited to the simple addition of more categories. After all, diversity of representation is not the same thing as equity and inclusion.
The true power of such a transformation is in normalizing the idea that singular identity descriptors—whether based on race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality, ability, affinity, interest, or anything else—are insufficient to capture the diversity of an individual, let alone an entire workplace. By creating a more open and welcoming environment to see and discuss identity, organizations can better understand, measure and initiate efforts to increase equity and inclusion. The importance of fostering an open environment cannot be understated. By empowering and respecting employees’ right to choose their own complex, multifaceted identities, we are challenging the entire history of American institutions and systems that aimed to exclude and disadvantage certain identities. With creative applications of workplace technology, we can help each other recognize and appreciate the strength and diversity of our multiracial, multicultural, multigendered society.
In the post-COVID workplace, technological hybridity is the norm. Every organization is trying to leverage new platforms and tools to enable better processes and products. But if employers want to unleash the full potential of these technologies, they will use them to better recognize, preserve and normalize cultural hybridity in their workspaces.
Hybridity means more than the coexistence of multiple different identities. Hybridity itself constitutes identity, for both individuals and communities. When organizations embrace hybridity, they allow their own identity and culture to be shaped by each member’s evolving understanding of their individual identities. This is especially important considering that today’s workers desire greater alignment between their personal identities and values and those of their employer.
Organizations can either work against this shift, maintaining the illusion of harmony that comes with stasis, or work with it to create an environment of inclusion, innovation and empowerment. It starts with these three steps.
These steps to recognize and support cultural hybridity are just the beginning of the journey. As we all work together to define what the “new normal” will look like, we must make sure it doesn’t end up looking like the old normal. The durability of narrow social categories and institutional power structures, however, will make this harder than it sounds. That’s why organizations must commit to consciously leveraging technological hybridity to increase representation, equity, and inclusion by making cultural hybridity more visible, measurable, and valued.
Like all DE&I initiatives, it will be difficult and uncomfortable at times. But new, tech-enabled opportunities for employee engagement and identification, along with more transparent and data-driven approaches to diversity metrics, can make the workplaces of the future not only more inclusive, but more innovative.