As hybrid work becomes more common, employers need to be careful to not favor of people who come into the office more regularly over those who may work mostly or entirely remotely. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as proximity bias.
“You will end up being a little more focused on people you are talking with and seeing in real life,” explained Anne DeAngelis, executive vice president of Employee Engagement at Strategy Zeno Group, during Ragan’s Internal Communications & Culture Next Practices Conference this past fall. DeAngelis first worked in a hybrid workplace more than 20 years ago, so she has experience in finding ways to make employees feel valued and included, even if they aren’t putting in as much face time at the office.
During her presentation, “Distance Bias: Eliminating the Out-of-Sight, Out-of-Mind Mentality in the Workplace,” DeAngelis noted that making employees feel included is especially important not only because it helps keep workers engaged, but because of the kinds of workers who tend to prefer hybrid or remote work. According to research she cited, Black workers value hybrid work more than white workers and women value it more than men. Working to bridge the hybrid gap can ensure all employees have fair access to managers, an equal voice in meetings and the same chance at receiving promotions.
Here are DeAngelis’ tips for communicators working to banish the bias:
- Work with HR to train and reinforce that training
Some people – particularly managers – may not even understand why proximity bias is a real thing that is likely to affect them. Like any bias, it takes root subtly, often without the person even realizing it. Make sure your manager training includes a lesson on proximity bias, and that you stay cognizant of how proximity bias can affect how your managers communicate with their teams.
- Make opportunities for engagement
Being physically present in the office creates countless opportunities for moments of serendipity where you strike up a casual conversation with someone in the same physical space. When part of the team is mostly or entirely remote, you must be intentional to create those moments.
This can be as simple as keeping standing one-on-one meetings and actively listening during that time. It can mean scheduling “office hours” when you’re working, but people are free to virtually drop in on you and chat about anything.
DeAngelis said that this is intended to “mimic what it was when people would walk by the office and go to see if someone was busy and they could just pop in and talk about something.”
- Hold effective meetings
Everyone, whether in the office or out of it, will thank you for making sure that every meeting actually needs to be a meeting — and not an email. But there are other things you can do, DeAngelis says, to ensure that people joining via Zoom or Teams feel just as included as those at the conference table.
Do your best to limit pre- or post-meeting in-person discussion. This may feel weird, but making decisions outside the meeting can cause remote participants to feel excluded and left out of the important process of seeing your decision-making.
You should also make time during the meeting for casual chat on a personal level. This helps build strong connections between team members. “In the beginning of the pandemic when we all were home, that was something that people focused on,” DeAngelis said. “But now that we’re all getting really used to these ways of communication, sometimes we just dive right into those agendas and not really give people space to talk to each other as fellow people.”
Finally, give everyone a square in the virtual meeting, whether they’re in person or remote. This might mean a bunch of people with their laptops in front of them on mute. But it helps create a level playing field where everyone has an equal share of the conversation.
With just a bit of extra thought, planning and compassion, you can make all employees feel valued and included, no matter where they work best.