Hybrid work comes with the risk of bias against remote workers. Here are some ways in which employers and leaders can make the hybrid office fair and impartial.
The future of work is hybrid. When businesses across the world finalize their return-to-office dates (which are still up in the air at the moment), a large segment of employees will continue to work from their homes even as the rest head back to office. According to Gartner, 25% of global knowledge workers will choose to work primarily from home in 2022 while 45% will be working remotely two to three days a week. Hybrid work promises the best of both worlds – the flexibility, employee satisfaction, and low labor costs associated with remote work and the natural strengths of traditional office work, such as seamless coordination, informal networking, and face-to-face collaboration.
But despite its obvious advantages, hybrid work also has the potential to give rise to inequality in the form of bias against remote workers. This bias is called proximity bias, which is a tendency, often unconscious, among employers and business leaders to view employees in their immediate vicinity (the office) more favorably and give them preferential treatment while overlooking those further away, even if they might be better performers comparatively. Such an unfair hybrid work model can be disastrous for both companies and employees as it can adversely impact collaboration, relationships, and ultimately performance. That is why, for a hybrid model to be effective, it is imperative that there is equitable visibility.
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In a hybrid workforce, an employee’s location – whether they are remote or in office – can decide how much access to resources they have and how visible they are to their managers and supervisors, especially if the latter are working on-site. This is called hybridity positioning. Remote workers start off from a position of disadvantage because of their slower internet connections and less sophisticated home office set-ups. However, this disadvantage can grow considerably if they don’t receive the same access to information and resources that their in-office colleagues enjoy.
The other concern while working in a hybrid office is that when it comes to picking members for a new project, on-site team leaders tend to pick employees they see regularly in the hallways. They also tend to give in-office members more recognition for their work while being oblivious to the late nights and extra effort put in by those working remotely. Even if the boss is working remotely, in-office employees have a clear edge over their work-from-home peers because there is a greater likelihood of their actions being seen by others in the office and indirectly reported to the boss. Because they are more visible to their managers, in-office employees have more opportunities for mentorship, guidance, and career advancement. Though evidence of proximity bias is mostly anecdotal, business leaders have expressed concern about it on more than one occasion. One 2015 study by researchers at Stanford University clearly suggests that remote employees are less likely to be promoted than their in-office colleagues.
Remote employees facing a proximity bias will naturally feel underappreciated, discouraged, and disengaged. When they realize that their opportunities for growth are limited, their performance will very likely suffer. Ultimately, they will leave and the company will end up losing a talented person.
To survive in a hybrid workplace, employees need to be flexible, agile, and positive. They must also work on their relationship-building skills, both in person and virtual. This collective ability is called hybridity competence. Employees with this ability will not hesitate to seek and claim the hard-to-access resources they need. The strong relationships and networks they build will more than make up for the lack of face time with bosses, thereby making them more visible to the decision-makers.
Master hybridity competence through these workshops offered by Learnit.
We often speak of equality in the workplace in the context of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). However, in the current return-to-work scenario, workplace equality extends to the different types of workers who make up the hybrid workforce – remote, in-office, and a mix of both. What guarantees that these various types of workers have equal access and opportunities in the hybrid workplace is equitable visibility.
Equitable visibility ensures that employees, irrespective of their location:
From the employer’s point of view, equitable visibility ensures that:
Both proximity bias and equitable visibility play out within teams, which makes the role of team leaders absolutely crucial to ensuring that a hybrid office is fair to all its employees. It is up to the manager to make sure that remote team members have the same visibility as their in-office peers as well as equal opportunities for fostering connections and workplace relationships. It is also entirely up to the manager to guarantee equity in promotions and career development.
Here are six ways in which leaders of a hybrid workforce can bring about equitable visibility.
A simple way to do this is to regularly check in on your team members, both remote and in-office, using online technology. During these frequent conversations, ask the members what challenges they are facing and discuss ways to overcome them. These challenges need not just be professional. Be an empathetic boss by inquiring about and showing an interest in your employees’ personal circumstances. Learnit’s Empathy workshops teach leaders how to understand various perspectives and interact with compassion. By keeping the communication lines open, you will encourage your employees to ask questions, seek help, and reassure them that their opinions and suggestions matter. Given the importance of open and clear communication in a hybrid environment, team leaders can polish their communication skills with Learnit’s Boosting Emotional Intelligence in a Hybrid Workplace workshop.
Many companies are making a conscious effort to keep their meetings as well as their training and development programs virtual to ensure all-around fairness. You can take a leaf out of their book and even go beyond by recording the online meetings so that those who missed out are not left out of the loop.
Job site Indeed, for example, plans to install screens in its office kitchens so that its employees can talk casually despite not being co-located. Office water cooler conversations are known to significantly improve employee engagement, morale, collaboration, and even innovation. There’s no reason why this cannot be replicated in hybrid offices. Learnit’s Leading Flexible + Hybrid Teams workshop is ideal to help foster relationship-building, cohesion and collaboration, vital to a team’s success. As a hybrid team leader, give your members opportunities to work together on a project or problem. Having shared goals and completing tasks together are great for building trust and fostering teamwork.
When leaders acknowledge team members who deliver good results and give them credit for their accomplishments irrespective of where they are located, the entire organization will be seen as one that has a culture of fairness and impartiality. This will help the company retain existing talent and also attract good workers from outside. People want to work for companies that reward good work. The right recognition will motivate employees to work harder and contribute more to the company.
The pandemic forced a large section of the workforce into caregiving roles, which they will continue to juggle alongside their professional work in the new hybrid workplace. Among this group of workers, women are clearly in the majority. According to a recent study about the flexibility choices of college-educated parents of young children, women showed a preference to work from home full time 50% times more than men. After software company Slack offered permanent remote positions in 2020, a large chunk of its new hires who opted to work primarily from home were minority workers. Similarly, a 2021 survey by research organization Conference Board found that Millennials (55%) are less comfortable returning to office than their older counterparts (45% of Gen Xers and 36% of Baby Boomers are resistant to the idea). To create a fair hybrid office, team leaders must be okay with the fact that the desire to work remotely isn’t evenly distributed. What’s more, they must create equal opportunities for all their team members, irrespective of their location, gender, or age. Failure to do so will lead to workplace equity problems that go beyond proximity bias.
Often, bias is not deliberate but stems from a lack of awareness of the inequalities that hybrid work creates. For example, people in charge of sharing information and resources might not be holding out on remote workers deliberately but might not have the permission to serve locations outside the office. It is the duty of leaders to do away with practices and policies that don’t align with hybrid work. Learnit’s Unconscious Bias class is a great resource for team leaders who wish to learn to identify hidden biases.
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