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Employee experience scores are rising since the broad adoption of flexible work, especially for people of color

Here are three ways the C-suite is keeping the connection and engagement going

Posted February 16, 2022 by Eliza Sarasohn

Reading time 6 min

Supply-chain chaos. See-sawing markets. The Great Resignation. Running a business during the pandemic can feel like captaining a ship through a never ending storm. But recently, we’ve been picking up on a promising signal through the noise: our latest Pulse survey shows that employee experience scores are on the rise, most especially for people of color. 

Since May 2021, scores for “sense of belonging at work” have increased 24% for Black respondents and 32% for Hispanic/Latinx respondents. Black workers are now 21% more likely to agree with the statement “I am treated fairly at work” than in May 2021, and that number has increased 13% for Hispanic/Latinx workers.

What’s behind this positive trend, and what can leaders do to keep it moving in the right direction? Earlier this month, together with our partners at Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), we invited a group of C-suite executives of global companies to discuss how they’re transforming this tenuous progress into permanent improvements by:

  • Reinventing company culture
  • Countering proximity bias
  • Adopting a “test and learn” approach

Executives are reinventing company culture

“When I talk to CEOs, there’s a strong sense that ‘culture’ is what keeps their company together,” noted Alan Murray, CEO of Fortune. “The general sense seems to be that culture is what creates belonging. [But] for underrepresented groups, that might not be true—in fact, culture may be the problem.”

“The general sense seems to be that culture is what creates belonging. [But] for underrepresented groups, that might not be true—in fact, culture may be the problem.”

Alan Murray, CEO of Fortune

Alan Murray, CEO of Fortune

Pre-pandemic, many aspects of company culture were established by the office majority, constrained by geography, and sustained by habit. Those entrenched norms were often alienating to new hires and employees, especially those who didn’t share cultural backgrounds with the majority of their colleagues.

So while some may assume that spending time in the office leads to deeper connections between colleagues, the data shows differently. In fact, remote and hybrid employees score higher than full-time office workers on all elements of the employee experience, from work-life balance and work-related stress to measures like sense of belonging at work and value of relationships with coworkers—long a source of concern about flexible work arrangements.

Source: Future Forum Pulse, Wave 5, conducted November 1-30, 2021. Number of completed responses = 10,737.

One reason for this effect: the broad adoption of flexible work has removed what Stanford professor Brian Lowery calls the “everyday tension” of feeling constantly on the outside of the office monoculture.

Workplace inclusion – defined


Inclusion is the practice of creating an environment where all people feel welcomed, respected, accepted, supported, and valued.  

Executives are working to counter proximity bias

A number of executives discussed their growing concerns about “proximity bias,” or the risk that in-office workers will receive preferential treatment simply by being physically closer to their managers. These harms could fall hardest on historically underrepresented employee groups, since the data shows that those groups are opting into flexible work arrangements—and opting out of work in the office—at higher rates than their peers. 

Executives noted that the pandemic has forced them to get creative to drum-up new digital-first and hybrid-friendly ways for employees to network and find mentors. 

 “The people who are most interested in coming back to the office are those who have the most to learn—the people who are newer in their roles or careers,” said Annette Dixon, Chief Human Resources Officer at World Bank Group. “They can’t just lean over and ask, ‘What happened in that meeting? Why did that person say that?’ This is the stuff that those starting in new roles need to get from more experienced colleagues.”

“The people who are most interested in coming back to the office are those who have the most to learn—the people who are newer in their roles or careers.”

Annette Dixon, Chief Human Resources Officer at World Bank Group

Annette Dixon, Chief Human Resources Officer at World Bank Group

Even before the pandemic, however, the benefits of mentorship, formal and informal, were less likely to accrue to employees from underrepresented groups. In a study in the Journal of Career Development, faculty of color reported difficulty finding mentors and insufficient institutional support for formal mentoring. Research from PayScale found that employees who have a white male advocate at their companies often get paid more money—and most employees with a white male advocate are themselves white men. 

Workplace equity – defined


Equity focuses on ensuring fairness and equality in employee outcomes, requiring companies to look to identify and address specific needs related to demographics such as race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, disability, age, parental status, or even working location.

One approach executives are applying to avoid this pitfall is by deliberately “curating collisions” between coworkers, using “virtual watercooler” tools such as Donut

Managers at General Mills have started asking employees to submit what the company has dubbed “Inclusion Contacts.” These are short notes sharing personal stories, experiences, and perspectives—from describing a beloved family holiday tradition to recounting a past microaggression. The goal of the initiative is to encourage employees to show vulnerability as a starting point for building empathy and trust. 

“One of the ways we’re intentionally incorporating inclusion into our work routines is when leaders start a meeting, they’ll pull from a library of Inclusion Contacts and read it as way to share learning,” says Jacqueline Williams-Roll, Chief Human Resources Officer at General Mills. “It’s another chance to encourage rich dialogue between employees, and an opportunity to make space for diverse perspectives and real experiences in the professional setting.”

“[Inclusion contacts are] another chance to encourage rich dialogue between employees, and an opportunity to make space for diverse perspectives and real experiences in the professional setting.”

Jacqueline Williams-Roll, Chief Human Resources Officer at General Mills

Jacqueline Williams-Roll, Chief Human Resources Officer at General Mills

Executives are adopting a “test and learn” approach

Executives recognize the need to upskill managers so they’re better equipped to lead hybrid teams where everyone feels they belong. Some of that has come through as formal training pushed out to managers across the organization. But executives have also been leaning on and learning a lot from their managers who show natural skill and enthusiasm in this area. “For us, it started by finding a couple leaders who are willing to be sponsors of change,” says Mary Beth DeNooyer, Chief Human Resources Officer at Keurig Dr Pepper. “We’ve tried to support those problem-solvers who are actively engaged, and take their learnings and replicate them company-wide.”

This fluid, test-and-adapt approach is a principle that many executives say they’ve applied more in the past two years than at any previous point in their careers: acknowledging that none of this is easy, and nobody has all the answers. 

“We’ve changed the way we talk about change.” 

Mary Beth DeNooyer

Mary Beth DeNooyer, Chief Human Resources Officer at Keurig Dr Pepper

“We’ve changed the way we talk about change,” Mary Beth said. “Instead of saying, ‘This is now our new normal, and it will be this way forever,’ we’ve gotten more comfortable saying, ‘This is where we are now, and we recognize the environment is changing fast, so we’ll evolve as it does.’”