Ask An Expert
Q: Not Feeling the Virtual Love at Work?
By Steve Yacovelli, Ed.D.
Spring 2022 BEQ Pride Published April 19, 2022
Hey “Gay Leadership Dude®”: like so many, I’m in a “hybrid” work environment these days; I mainly work from home but go into the office on occasion. Recently I’ve realized that my boss seems to be favoring my coworkers who go into the office more often. For example: there was this really cool project that needed people and my boss put all “onsite” team members on it; not us more virtual team members. I’m not feeling the love being on this side of the computer. Any advice?
This is such a great (and timely) question, No-Virtual-Love. It’s funny, tho: it makes me think of a situation many years ago when I worked at a world-famous cruise line in the home office (who’s admiral is a rodent, but I digress). We “shoreside” Human Resource folks would support the awesome efforts of our shipboard HR peeps through a variety of talent management goodness. We would often have meetings between the two groups via teleconference (this was in the mid- ‘00s and tech was a wee bit different). The most challenging parts of our team conversations were two-fold: (1) we all tended to give preference to those who were in the room “where it happened” (thanks “Hamilton”!); and (2) the slight satellite delay on the phone made synchronous (same time) communication a bit off (think of those old cell phone commercials, “Can you hear me now?!”). And these biases worked on both sides of the conversation, as I witnessed when I’d be sailing on one of the ships and we had these group calls.
I’m reminded of this story today because you’re experiencing the same thing in this post-COVID (whatever “post-COVID” means) world. We’re already seeing a workplace that is very different; remote working won’t be a random one-off but an arrow in the quiver of our workplace to be used to engage employees, recruit best talent, and be more successful. One study found that almost 85% of companies interviewed intend to continue offering some sort of remote work option post-COVID (Nevogt, 2020).
Smart businesses will realize that the pandemic did indeed open up our proverbial eyes to the benefits of remote working: from higher productivity rates to lower commute times; higher well-being to better bottom lines. And since many in the workforce have tasted the sweet sweet nectar of remote working, it’s going to be near impossible to put that Genie fully back in the bottle.
The challenge is that some people will still opt to go into the office (or, Leaders will still require it). Having been a remote worker way before COVID hit, I’ve seen that it’s absolutely not for everyone, even with the benefits identified above. Some people like the in-office routine, the “water cooler chat” with colleagues, the interactions, the cafeteria food (or maybe not), the free office supplies, and just the ability to compartmentalize work life from home life. (And for the record it is VERY much for me … I like throwing a load of laundry in between Zoom calls or walking my pups during lunch break).
One of the downsides to this new era: “proximity bias” will be all too prominent in our “new normal” (ewww: that phrase is so 2020); and we’ll need to educate Leaders like your boss on being mindful of it and how to not succumb to having biases for those in our physical spaces and against those who are remote. So, what exactly is “proximity bias”? It’s where we—usually unconsciously—favor things that are closest to us in space, time, and ownership while undervaluing things that are farther away. We focus on the “in our face” and ignore what’s not “in the here and now.”
Think back to my cruise line story: both parties easily fell into proximity bias depending on their location: ship or shore. It’s way too easy to ignore the input of someone over a phone or a Zoom (especially with the camera off) than it is when they’re sitting right next to you. Those casual interactions in real-time in the office can be small relationship-building moments that produce that unconscious favoritism for some team members over others (or think of it as “micro-advantages”). Further, this proximity bias could cause the distance worker to become disenfranchised when they feel/see/experience the favoritism of their in-office colleagues (sound familiar?). The FOMO (“fear of missing out”) of what’s happening after we log off of that video meeting would be all too real for the remote team member and begin to undermine relationships and trust within the blended team.
So, what can you/we do? Here are a few strategies to mitigate proximity bias from taking root in the workplace:
- Start with awareness … Help others be aware of this potential bias that could creep up when our workplace gets “back to normal.” Have a conversation with both remote and in-person team members about this potential bias and be on the lookout for it. If you’re experiencing it now, let your boss / Leader know how you feel.
- Create a culture of accountability … It’s one thing to be aware; it’s another to hold each other accountable. Is your workplace culture one of providing effective feedback (positive and negative) consistently? If so, you’re in a good space for people to respectfully share their feelings in regard to this proximity bias. Is your workplace culture not so good at feedback? Then start the work to foster a culture where continue (positive) or change (negative) types of feedback are encouraged.
- Leverage the tech … Ensure remote workers engage as much as they can via the technology tools you’re using. Zoom, Teams, or other video chat-capable system? Set your workplace standard to turn on that camera (assuming bandwidth isn’t an issue or there aren’t personal challenges with being on-camera). Encourage people to use the chat feature (if there is one) to also engage in the conversation. Pre-set polling questions can spark conversations, provide ways for all people to engage, and allow for anonymous sharing of perspectives. Don’t let the tech get in the way, but leverage it as a means to engage.
- Be creative in keeping remote folks at “top of mind” … If using video then again encourage distance participants to use it: it’s hard to ignore someone you can actually see. What about in the office or when video isn’t an option? Go old school and have pics of your on-the-phone colleagues on the wall or better yet use some sort of frame so they can sit by the phone speaker or mic. Ask the Leader to ask each remote participant if they’re with you or for their opinion during your discussion.
- Finally: ask the remote employee if they feel part of the team … Smart Leaders will check in on the distance folks often—both during your meetings and outside of them. A quick “how are you doing?” via email, text, Slack (or the like), or better yet a darn phone call can go far to let that distant team member know they’re being thought of and the challenge of their physical distance situation is being thought of, too.
Our challenge is to include everyone, regardless of proximity. Any bias within our workplace needs to be acknowledged and mitigated if we’re to foster a workplace where everyone can feel they belong. It shouldn’t matter if they’re in the office or working remotely: as a Leader, create that sense of team and trust regardless of location. No-Virtual-Love: you may need to remind your boss of this … and do it in-person or remotely; whichever works for you!
Nevogt, D. (2020 August 31). “Are Remote Workers More Productive? We’ve Checked All the Research So You Don’t Have To.” Hubstaff Blog found online: https://blog.hubstaff.com/state-of-remote-work-after-pandemic/
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Dr. Steve Yacovelli, Owner & Principal
TopDog Learning Group, LLC