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Post-pandemic proximity bias: Intentional model required to manage remote workers

Remember to create pathways to connection and socialization and don’t assume these will happen organically.


Proximity bias is the tendency to give preference to people or things that are closer to us. (DC Studio/Adobe Stock)

Before 2020, there was a clear distinction between office workers and remote workers.

Office workers had the brainstorms, water-cooler chatter and cake for team birthdays, while remote workers weren’t often ”Zoomed” in.

But the pandemic has forever changed the workplace and altered expectations for how we communicate with our managers and colleagues.

As the post-pandemic workplace takes shape, leaders have to be conscious of proximity bias and adopt an intentional model for workplace culture that accommodates the new reality.

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Proximity bias is the tendency to give preference to people or things that are closer to us. It is the root of the largely debunked belief that employees working from home are less productive than those in the office.

Within an organization with mixed in-person and remote workers, this bias could lead to disproportionally rewarding those who are physically in the office.

Leaders need to recognize the role of all kinds of bias in ourselves and those around us, and now is the perfect time to take action to ward off proximity bias. Intentionality is crucial to this work and how we communicate intention is the main determinant of success.

Here are five things to consider to help combat proximity bias:

Physical space

“Most offices were built for an in-office workforce, and in these spaces, virtual becomes a second-class participant,” says Andrew Au, Managing Partner, Intercept. “Now is the time to retrofit and update technology to create a similar experience for both home and office employees.”

At Kaiser & Partners Toronto, our boardroom is now equipped with a 360-degree camera, mic, and speaker, which puts in-office participants into frames similar to those calling in.

It levels the playing field for hybrid meetings.

Onboarding

Communication around physical attendance expectations and how leadership feels about work environments should start during the recruitment phase and continue through on-boarding.

Managers need to be clear about which tasks are flexible and which, if any, are “in office.” Honesty and transparency about what is mandatory, encouraged, or optional will help manage expectations

Robert Wyatt, Business Services Director, Optima Communications International, has been leading a remote team since March 2020, and believes it isn’t all on management to minimize the effects of proximity bias.

“Employees also have a responsibility to participate in virtual meetings in a meaningful way,” says Wyatt. “It is management’s responsibility, though, to make sure that expectation is clear to everyone.”

Meetings

It is important that all meetings be purposeful. Setting an agenda for each meeting brings intentionality into play and gives everyone in the meeting an opportunity to participate.

This helps ensure that all critical personnel are included, and information dissemination is equal, efficient and happens through the proper channels.

Jay Badiani, CMO, IBM Canada believes it’s also important to ensure the most senior or loudest person in the virtual room doesn’t take all the airtime.

“In meetings, call on those who haven’t yet spoken and leave time at the end for anyone who hasn’t had a chance to contribute,” says Badiani.

Rewards and recognition

Never again can out of sight, be out of mind. Your team will notice if promotions or praise are doled out more frequently to those who work in person.

Leaders need to communicate clear performance metrics and focus on individual contributions. It’s not about how frequently an employee comes into the office, but how productive they are, whether they’re hitting targets and what their clients and colleagues say about them.

This may involve revisiting goals and job descriptions to ensure they are not biased towards in-office behaviours. Invite members from each level to provide feedback on current expectations and then communicate what the revisions mean and why they are important to the team

It is also critical to create channels of access to leadership. For those not in the office, can they still get facetime with leaders? Think about tactics like Q&A sessions, fireside chats, standing office hours or quarterly one-on-ones.

Communicate your commitment to your team and follow through on any feedback received or suggested during the sessions.

Culture

Finally, any actions you take will be worthless if they are incongruous with the organization’s true culture. Leaders should be intentional about cultural signals relating to the workplace and that now needs to include bias around proximity and physical presence.

Whatever post-pandemic work looks like for you, consider what boundaries you want to set and stick with them. Maybe it’s quiet hours, or no-meeting days. Talk about big wins that have nothing to do with where people are physically but how they relate to the overall corporate values and strategic plan

Remember to create pathways to connection and socialization and don’t assume these will happen organically.

Currently, we’re all in a state of transition – between closed and open, outdoors and inside, at home and in office. As we enter the next phase, there are risks, but also opportunities for great leaders and strong communicators. Be intentional, not passive, in communicating what success looks like and take care to provide equal opportunities to achieve it.

A seasoned senior communications advisor and agency leader, Janine Allen is president and partner at Kaiser & Partners, a full service corporate, marketing, and financial communications agency with offices in Toronto and Montreal.


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