Bias in hybrid work environments is real. Here’s how to ensure your team is equitable, no matter where your employees are based.
Hybrid work poses a unique threat to employee wellbeing and company culture, but most managers don’t see it coming.
Gartner found that 83 percent of company leaders are planning to allow flexible or hybrid work arrangements to their teams, but only 13 percent of those leaders are concerned about achieving parity between in-office and remote work experiences. Leaders are offering flexibility without anticipating the unique challenges that come with flexible work, such as:
- How do you run a team meeting when who's in-office and remote fluctuates constantly?
- How do you collaborate or reach consensus when some of your team isn't in the physical room with you? Whose voice gets heard, and who is drown out?
- How do you lead well when most of your employees are in-office but you are remote?
- How do you "read the room" remotely when all you can see on the screen is a conference room full of tiny faces?
There aren’t perfect answers to these questions, but leaders will need to be ready to figure them out quickly. JLL Research anticipates that the amount of days worked remotely is expected to double post-crisis, going from 1.2 days pre-pandemic to 2.4 days a week post-pandemic. Now that employees have sampled remote work, 72% of them want to continue working from home post-crisis, and a majority want to do so an average of 2 days a week — and 1 in 3 is asking for a dedicated allowance for their home office. These are signs of a significant shift from pre-2020 remote work, when about 3% of the workforce was working from home.
Hybrid work arrangements — where workers can choose to be remote some or most of the time — offers an exciting solution to shifting workforce expectations and the needs of scaling companies. However, hybrid work is so new that there are still many operational unknowns, and the lack of standardized work procedures for hybrid teams means that implicit biases favoring in-office culture can often sour the experience for leaders and employees alike.
Learn to recognize the main types of bias that can arise in a hybrid work environment so you can address them early to keep your teams productive and engaged no matter where they are.
Types of hybrid workplace biases
To understand proximity bias, simply reflect back on the last time you dialed into a meeting from the car, or when you worked from an airport in between flights. Was it a frustrating experience to get a word in during a discussion? Did anyone make a joke that you were “calling in from the airport bar with a Mai Tai in your hand”?
Though these can seem like harmless experiences, for employees on hybrid teams, proximity bias can have a huge impact when out-of-office employees are perceived as working less hard than folks in an office. This inversely leads to in-office employees being considered first for promotions or big projects, and adds pressure to hybrid or fully remote workers to come into the office more to be “taken seriously.”
“If a remote-friendly company unintentionally develops a culture that considers home-workers second-class citizens, it risks squandering all the hard-won competitive differentiators that remote working brings.”
-Rebecca Corliss for Fast Company
Proximity bias is a dangerous source of inequity in modern hybrid teams. Managers and leaders conscious of proximity bias can create more inclusive environments by being mindful of this bias.
Ever mentally mapped a candidate’s commute based on their address? Did their distance from your office (or the affluence of their neighborhood) alter your perception of them as a candidate? You unfortunately employed location bias when doing so. Hiring managers are more likely to discriminate against candidates with longer perceived commutes, and with hybrid team distribution, this bias can become even more of an issue.
Location bias can look like a team lead based in California scheduling an important meeting at 7pm EST, not considering the schedules of their East coast coworkers, or hosting an after-work team outing downtown at a venue that inconveniences suburban train commuters. Location bias easily overlaps with proximity bias. Sometimes, even discrimination based on someone’s age, class, gender, parental status or race can overlap with perceptions about where a teammate lives.
In-group vs. out-group bias
Cliques didn’t die in high school, unfortunately. Like many trends from the 80s and 90s coming back today, cliques are back in full force in the hybrid work environment. Psychologically, humans are inclined to give preferential treatment to people in the same group as them. This can apply to trivial things, like a kickball team, and can have deep consequences on people’s livelihoods when this bias shows up at work.
If your office environment is the main source of your company culture, in-group bias will be a significant hurdle to making your company attractive to hybrid and remote workers, since the more they stay away from the office, the more likely they’ll be perceived as out-group.
Who is vulnerable to hybrid workplace biases?
Bias affects everyone, but some groups are more at risk of being passed over for promotions, raises, projects and opportunities than most in a hybrid work environment. Parents (especially mothers and nontraditional/non-heterosexual parents) may be impacted more that their childless colleagues — more inequality layered on top of an already difficult year for working parents, especially mothers, who were disproportionately affected by COVID business closures, reports the U.S. Census Bureau.
Similarly, older workers may be on the receiving end of in-group bias based in age, and may need different training on hybrid collaboration tools than digitally-native younger workers. Though those early-career folks are more likely to need to be in the office, and strangely, may be affected by inverse proximity bias when working with a mostly-remote team.
Remote work accessibility is also a diversity issue. Only 3 percent of Black talent surveyed by Future Forum said they wanted to return fully in-person post-pandemic, compared with 21 percent of white workers. The study concluded that flexible work was critical to a feeling of greater inclusion for Black workers. However, this also means that Black teammates working from home may be excluded due to proximity or in-group bias.
Finally, for people living with disabilities, a group that benefits from and has been advocating for telecommute options, the hybrid workplace offers the flexibility activists have been demanding for years. Being attentive to bias is key to making your team an inclusive space for every worker. A building without a wheelchair ramp is not accessible; ensure your virtual and hybrid workspaces and tools are accessible to everyone on your team, and not just for people without disabilities.
How to bias-proof your hybrid team
These biases are real issues, but with the hybrid workplace being such a new concept, guidelines and best practices are still being discovered. Your best bet? Approach this challenge like an explorer, drop your assumptions, and build team processes with intention — but be ready to change when you discover new information.
“Consider what types of work are best done in the office and what types of face-time various types of employees need to continue growing, excelling and advancing. A blend of structure and choice is the best way to achieve both parity and happiness among employees.”
- Aram Lulla of Lucas Group in Forbes
Leaders who can successfully discuss and adopt team agreements and establish norms will set themselves up for long-term success rather than just “waiting to see how it goes.” With intentional systems for onboarding and running meetings, leaders can prevent implicit bias excluding members of their team. Finally, inviting constant feedback on hybrid team norms and workflows and being willing to try new things can go a long way in making your hybrid team a psychologically safe place to work.