In 2023, even the most carefully thought-out hybrid work plan can be undercut if bosses get “too rigid with flexibility.” Ajay Banga, vice chairman at growth equity investor General Atlantic, thinks that’s the obvious snag in the new remote work era.
Banga, who was CEO of Mastercard for 11 years and later the company’s chairman, strongly believes in the power of in-person collaboration, but says it can’t come at the expense of giving people the freedom they need.
“You burn through a lot of social capital when you reduce everyone to little squares on a screen,” Banga told Fortune’s Peter Vanham in an interview on Fortune Connect, Fortune’s exclusive leadership community. But if working in person with a team isn’t feasible, he adds, remote work is still “a pretty productive way to get stuff done, as compared to flying to Timbuktu to meet someone.”
But it wouldn’t be Banga’s first choice, at least for workers new to a company. “It’s really hard to get to know people and [establish] networks that enable you to be more successful and productive,” he said. “Humans are social beings. And what makes us richer is the ability to touch, feel, interact, hug, and cry together, and be happy together and share successes and failures.”
On that point, Banga is one in a vast string of executives to insist upon the importance of in-person work. But he’s one of relatively few to wholeheartedly acknowledges the reverse. “Clearly people are crying out for flexibility in their working lives right now,” he added. “The ability to understand the need for that flexibility, but then to not flip over to, ‘therefore let’s just do it all digitally,’ that to me is a balance.”
Banga said failing to execute on that balance would lead to an unequal work environment for people who prefer to work remotely more often—disproportionately caregivers, women, and people of color.
Proximity bias can’t be ignored
Banga’s biggest concern is that scattered return to office plans will set back “the advances we’ve made on reducing the inequality of opportunities for women.” Mainly, that’s because of proximity bias, which describes the natural preference and familiarity with those you most often see around you. Sixty percent of managers told Beautiful.AI they’d probably lay off remote workers first in a recession.
Workers have taken note. Over half (58%) of women are concerned working remotely would limit their overall career advancement; 64% of men said the same, per a November 2022 Care.com report.
“Proximity bias is real,” Katherine Goldstein, host of motherhood podcast Double Shift, told Fortune last year. “People already judge mothers as being less committed to their work, so there is a sense that hybrid or remote work could really create an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality in terms of both promotions and also in terms of layoffs.”
Plus, Goldstein added, absent personal connections with workers they don’t see every day, bosses may have an easier time carrying out layoffs. Or, in a longer-term setting, doling out promotions.
“When the four people next to you in the office everyday are men, and the two women don’t come in, when the time for a promotion comes, you’ll naturally gravitate to one of the men,” Banga said.
He encourages what most experts do about sustainable hybrid work: two or so designated office days, ideally organized so whole teams are there at once. There’s little to gain from mandating people to return to an office just to log onto Zooms all day—especially because of how resentful those employees would be about feeling forced to show.
While Banga advocates for as much in-person collaboration as is feasible, he warned about “getting rigid with flexibility.” Hybrid arrangements, with ample room for reorganizing around life events and complications, work for everyone because “not everything can be planned by your Roman calendar.”
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