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Returned to the office? How to create an inclusive workplace.


Returned to the office? How to create an inclusive workplace. Returned to the office? How to create an inclusive workplace.

Key Takeaways

  • Professionals of color may deal with a lack of representation, unconscious biases, and pressure to represent their whole demographic. 
  • Caregivers also struggle to balance responsibilities at home with work duties.
  • Strategies for creating an inclusive office environment included understanding employee needs, implementing flexible return-to-office policies, granting autonomy over work, investing in diversity and psychological safety, and maintaining open communication. 
  • Building trust and respecting different perspectives allows organizations to leverage diversity and better accommodate all employees. With ongoing commitment, workplaces can cultivate an environment where everyone feels empowered.

We often hear that the “future of work is here,” a statement that attempts to capture the rapidly changing nature of what it's like to go to work these days. If you've led or navigated workplaces over the last few years, you likely have been experiencing these changes firsthand. We've seen shifts driven by significant societal changes, including the global pandemic, which necessitated a move toward remote work and fundamentally altering how and where we perform our professional roles. We've witnessed the rapid integration of AI, generating both alarm and applause simultaneously, depending on where you sit on the debate. We've also experienced the sudden rise of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, followed by the just-as-sudden rise of anti-DEI campaigns, turning our workplace environments into an arena where societal tensions play out.

Understanding the differing experiences of individuals within the office environment is essential to understanding how our ever-changing work realities affect many professionals. To evolve with the landscape and lead inclusive, innovative, and high-performing work environments, leaders must be mindful of how the in-office work experience affects everyone differently, particularly as we evolve toward the future of work with agility and care. 

The most resilient companies will understand that not all employees will have the same experience in the workplace, knowing that not everyone arrives at their desk carrying the same lived experiences and day-to-day contexts. As a result, these companies design cultures and environments that are malleable to the varied experiences of those in the room. 

But how can you build a work environment that is aware of and inclusive of the breadth of realities taking place?

This blog post explores the varied workplace experiences that many professionals experience and how companies can understand, value, and support these experiences to build high-performing teams.

Understanding the variety of workplace experiences

Understanding the nuances and variety of workplace experiences is vital for building an inclusive and productive environment. Workplace experiences are not universal. For professionals of color, women, those with caregiving responsibilities, and others whose marginalized experiences are not often accounted for, the workplace presents unique challenges that can significantly impact their career progression, sense of belonging, and overall job satisfaction.

For example, professionals of color frequently encounter systemic barriers embedded at work, such as limited representation in senior management positions and unconscious biases that can influence performance evaluations and promotion opportunities. These challenges can be compounded by the pressure of tokenism, where they are expected to embody the perspectives of an entire racial or ethnic group, often without the support needed to navigate these complex dynamics. Navigating the delicate balance between authenticity and conformity through tactics such as code-switching, mirroring, or adjusting physical appearance can be a daily effort to avoid triggering negative stereotypes or race-based consequences. It's a taxing exercise and one that can often be imperceptible to others not experiencing it.

Another example of an often invisible workplace experience is that of employees who are primary caregivers of children, elderly parents, or family members with disabilities. According to a Harvard Business Review study, caregivers account for 73% of employees surveyed yet employers have remained unaware of the impact of that burden at work. These professionals must balance their work responsibilities with their caregiving duties, tasks that still fall disproportionately on women. The struggle to balance work and life demands can fuel burnout and job dissatisfaction, a detriment to both employees who are caregivers and organizations aiming to retain talented employees.

Beyond the experiences of professionals of color and primary caregivers, there are numerous other examples of employees navigating unique workplace challenges due to their identities and lived realities. This includes members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with visible or invisible disabilities, older workers, and more. Workplaces need to be aware of and actively engage with the context in which their employees operate. Building high-performing teams involves a deep understanding of the interconnectedness among personal histories, societal dynamics, and workplace cultures and how these elements collectively influence the present work environment.

Leaders must keep a pulse on all factors contributing to their environment, not just the visible or immediate tasks at hand. This deeper understanding of undercurrents and overlooked realities is crucial for success. It encompasses more than surface-level assessments and requires attunement, critical thinking, and time. By embracing the complexities of our relationships, the larger systems we operate within, and the societal contexts that shape these interactions, leaders can foster workplaces that genuinely leverage the depths of human capacity.

The “check your bags at the door” mentality, which suggests personal and professional lives should remain distinct and separate, is outdated. This approach fails to acknowledge the complex and deeply intertwined realities and demands of employees' lives. Employees should be able to bring their whole selves to work, including their cultural backgrounds, life experiences, and personal challenges. 

The Aquent Talent Insights Report highlights the importance of fostering work environments that are not only flexible, diverse, and inclusive but also deeply grounded in understanding and leveraging the unique contexts of their employees. High-performing teams, as noted in the report, excel not just because of their skill sets or strategic approaches but also due to their adaptability and responsiveness to their team members' diverse needs and backgrounds. This alignment between workplace practices and the multifaceted realities of employees' lives creates a more engaged, motivated, and ultimately productive workforce. Such environments acknowledge that the strength of a team lies in its capacity to integrate and leverage its members' varied perspectives and experiences, thereby driving performance from a foundation of understanding and respect.

Strategies for improving the office experience

Ultimately, the goal for organizations should be to create inclusive workplaces, whether fully in person, fully remote, or somewhere in between. Truly inclusive workplaces require inclusive leaders who remain aware and attentive to the varied experiences of their team members. To enhance the office experience, adopting strategies that prioritize understanding, respect for individual contributions, and create supportive work environments is crucial. That can look like the following:

Understand employees' needs

First, assess employee needs through surveys or forums to ensure all voices and experiences are included when designing work policies. In particular, actively seek out and integrate the expertise from underrepresented voices. Creating environments where these perspectives are incorporated into decisions oftentimes means dismantling systemic barriers that silence such expertise. 

Be intentional with return-to-office policies

Implementing return-to-office (RTO) policies has been a poignant example of significant tension points, highlighting how employees interpret the in-office experience. 

RTO policies are touted for their potential to bolster organizational culture and teamwork. The office environment is often considered a hub for “water cooler” innovation, where casual interactions can spark creativity and enhance team cohesion. However, actually experiencing the benefits of these kismet exchanges depends on how RTO is implemented and cultivated. Without intentional team development, trust-building, and built-in flexibility, RTO policies and practices can inadvertently contribute to experiences of alienation and burden for some team members. 

By balancing the benefits of in-person collaboration with the flexibility and inclusivity necessary to accommodate all employees, organizations can create a more cohesive and dynamic work environment where those in the office experience the value of working in person. 

Encourage autonomy

Leaders should emphasize describing desired work outcomes rather than dictating how tasks should be completed, granting employees the autonomy to use their skills, creativity, and time flexibly. By doing so, leaders empower employees to approach their role with more ownership and agency while aligning their team's work with the company's objectives.

Design for workplace inclusivity

Explore horizontal structures that encourage open dialogue. Collaborative decision-making can be a step toward embracing and valuing varied in-office work experiences. Such models democratize the workplace, allowing ideas to flow freely in multiple directions and, in the process, uncovering the multiple realities that can more deeply shape the work happening in the room. Organizations that value diversity in leadership and decision-making bodies understand that it's about bringing together various viewpoints that can challenge conventional thinking and lead to more effective solutions that work for everybody.

Invest attention into building psychological safety

Authenticity, vulnerability, and trust are pivotal to creating an environment where employees can share openly about obstacles. The key here, however, is that those at the top of the organization must lead the way. Leaders who share their challenges and failures, openly discussing the impact of their own varied realities in the workplace, will create an environment where employees feel safe to express their experiences and ideas for improving the office experience.

Keep lines of communication open

Establish regular check-ins, peer discussion systems, and open forums for sharing ideas and concerns to create a culture of continuous feedback and growth. Anonymous feedback mechanisms should also be implemented to identify and address unseen organizational issues, particularly for employees who lack feelings of psychological safety.


Building a work environment where everyone feels valued, respected, and empowered is an ongoing commitment. Today's world of work requires inclusive leadership, flexible policies, and continuous evaluation. Central to this process is cultivating workplace cultures and policies attuned to all employees' needs and aspirations. Takeaways from the Aquent Talent Insights Report show us ways to reimagine work environments to be more accommodating and empowering. By drawing on such insights, organizations can cultivate cultures where the diversity of workplace experiences is leveraged as an asset, and the insights offered are utilized to enhance engagement, satisfaction, and capacity across the workforce. 

“The future of work is here,” but only if we create it as a place where all can thrive.

Image of Jenny Vazquez-Newsum
Jenny Vazquez-Newsum

Jenny Vazquez-Newsum, Ed.D. is a leadership facilitator, author, consultant, and Founder of Untapped Leaders, a leadership development organization and consulting firm specializing in uncovering overlooked capacities on diverse teams. Over the past two decades, Jenny has worked with over 500 leaders from more than 200 organizations ranging from established executives at large corporations to high school students beginning their leadership journeys witnessing the untapped capacities that exist across all stages in career paths.Jenny is the author of Untapped Leadership: Harnessing the Power of Underrepresented Leaders, out June 2023, and holds a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Southern California, an M.P.A. from New York University, and an Ed.D. from the University of California – Los Angeles.


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