Prasad Setty, VP of digital work experience at Google Workspace, shares three pillars of collaboration equity necessary for today’s new hybrid workplace. A version of this piece appears on Forbes.com and the Google Workspace blog.
Like many businesses around the world, Google is trying to combine on-site and off-site work into an efficient hybrid model. And like most businesses, we’re also figuring out how to get it right. As we grow our vision for the best possible hybrid workplace, one theme consistently emerges: the need for collaboration equity.
Collaboration equity is when all workers have the ability to contribute and communicate equally, regardless of location, role, experience level, language, and device preference. A lack of collaboration equity can stem from hierarchies in video calls or language barriers on international calls. It can mean junior employees don’t feel empowered to speak up in meetings, off-site employees struggle to access their on-site managers, or front-line workers lack the communication tools their office colleagues enjoy.
Hybrid models demand deeper thinking about social, organisational, and technological challenges.
When these disparities add up, they can damage an individual’s wellbeing, career potential, and effectiveness. When they permeate an organisation, team performance suffers, innovation wanes, and talent leaves. In our recently commissioned survey with the Economist Impact, 62% of respondents agreed with the notion that “limited networking opportunities with senior employees and co-workers has a negative impact on career growth.” Proximity bias is just one of many new challenges we face in hybrid work environments.
We believe the location from which you participate shouldn’t influence your outcome. And while it’s easier to have everyone on-site or everyone off-site, hybrid models demand deeper thinking about social, organisational, and technological challenges. These ideas should be addressed at the C-suite level with solutions that garner buy-in from every part of the organisation.
So how do we deliver on the promise of a hybrid workplace where flexibility, wellbeing, and meaningful impact coexist? At Google, we’re bridging the gap between the in-person and the “somewhere else” by pushing technology, culture, and physical spaces to be more inclusive and maximise participation. We’re also innovating new Google Workspace features to power collaboration equity for our billions of users worldwide.
To guide our work, we’ve identified three pillars of collaboration equity: representation, participation, and information.
Achieving representation equity means that all employees can be seen, heard, and portrayed equally, whether working off-site or on-site. When the pandemic hit, we were all scrambling to make sure people could simply connect safely with one another. Google’s existing technology for distributed teams was pressure tested, and I’m proud of how well it performed. But we’re now faced with the disconnect that happens when you merge off-site work with on-site work.
When we were all participating in meetings remotely, everyone shared equal-sized tiles on videos. There was no one sitting in a corner office, no hierarchy — everyone was represented equally. In a hybrid environment, it’s distorted. The people participating remotely appear giant on a conference room monitor, while the people in the conference room appear tiny on screens at home. It can be difficult to decipher who’s even in the room. This is certainly not equal representation.
Achieving representation equity means that all employees can be seen, heard, and portrayed equally, whether working off-site or on-site.
Some of these issues can be solved with technology. For example, we’ve been working on features like AI-driven video adjustments in Google Meet to compensate for low-light environments and auto-zoom to keep all participants in focus, and both will improve representation equity for hybrid workplaces. Additionally, we can now limit data usage on slow mobile networks so no one has to turn off video during a call. All of these technological innovations improve representation equity for hybrid workplaces, but we also need to adopt new workplace norms as well. For example, some organisations have implemented policies where if one person joins a meeting from off-site, then everyone joins via device so they are all represented equally.
We think of participation equity as the ability to host, present, and participate equally, regardless of location. At Google, we were already accustomed to joining meetings virtually from different offices. With the new tools we’ve developed in the last 18 months, everyone’s ability to participate equally has grown. Wider adoption of meeting tools like hand raise, polls, Q&A, and breakout rooms gives us an ordered, structured way of talking in distributed groups.
But how will we interact when many of us are back in the office? How do we ensure that off-site workers can still engage as meaningfully as others? Companion mode, a tool we’ve developed for Google Meet, gives both in-person and off-site attendees the same meeting experience. Each individual can host, present, and participate in meetings in the same way, with the same tools, regardless of their location.
We think of participation equity as the ability to host, present, and participate equally, regardless of location.
Teams can also promote participation equity by using meeting moderators who encourage the use of hand-raising features so no one dominates the conversation or interrupts — a challenge that often arises when multiple people are in the same location. While it may feel forced and prevent natural back-and-forths, it does help everyone’s voices be heard. We’ve also learned that many people find it distracting to see their own image, so we’ve enabled users to hide their own video feed. I’ve seen firsthand how these tools and practices are improving participation equity.
Information equity means that, regardless of whether they work on- or off-site, people have equal access to information. Ensuring free flow of information is key to better long-term thinking, creativity, and cooperation among teams. As individuals exercise their autonomy for where and how they work best, their preferences affect recruiting and retention. If we’re going to accommodate a range of preferences, how do we best equalise access to information?
During this pivotal time, we are uniquely enthusiastic about how we’re seeing work change and advance around the globe.
First, we should actively prioritise keeping each other informed. We can support this proactive mindset through technology by ensuring that meetings have agendas, are recorded or transcribed, and have shareable, accessible information. Our products, including Spaces and Drive, can be used as information hubs where teammates can reliably access crucial files, conversations, and updates. And co-workers can leverage smart suggestions to @-mention others linked to the project, so no one is left out.
We must commit to solving the information equity problem together or risk ending up in a mushy middle ground where no one is satisfied. Because while most people enjoy working from home, they won’t sacrifice career progression to keep it. If the centre of gravity tilts too far toward on-site work, the hybrid model will collapse. We’re not advocating a “choose your own adventure” mentality, nor a one-size-fits-all model. We’re empowering teams to meet the preferences of individual members in a deliberate fashion that supports the larger organisation.
During this pivotal time, we are uniquely enthusiastic about how we’re seeing work change and advance around the globe. Delivering on the hybrid-work promise of “the best of both worlds” feels more within our reach than ever before. But if we’re going to succeed, we must strive for collaboration equity. Our experience tells us that when you give people freedom and opportunity, they will amaze you.
How to build collaboration equity in your hybrid workplace:
- Start with representation. Can every employee be seen and heard? Do they have the tools, technology, and devices to be adequately represented?
- Enable participation. Is everyone encouraged to provide their input and voice their opinions? What tools and forums exist to provide this input? How is the input acknowledged and acted upon?
- Share information. Do people have access to all the information they need to do their jobs? Does information flow freely or is it hoarded?
- Let teams and departments design their own hybrid schedules. Hybrid will not work if every individual is “choosing their own adventure.” Consider using on-site days for collaborative, creative, and brainstorming projects and reserving off-site days for deep focus work.
- Reward outcomes, not activities. An employee’s individual preference for how and where to work should not matter as long as they are getting things done. This means flexibility in location and work schedule to maximise impact.
- Highlight our shared responsibility to each other. Every manager should ask:
- What does the team need to know about how you work best?
- What are you personally doing to ensure the entire team is successful?
Discover more stories and insights about the future of work on the Google Workspace blog.