The hybrid workplace seems to be here to stay, and many are welcoming this change to a model that mixes remote work with time in the office. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, workers stated a preference to work at home at least some of the time. Now those numbers have increased as more workers have experienced some of the benefits of working from home.
And while many companies have made it plain that they want their employees to come back to the office as soon as feasible, it’s clear that workers favor more flexibility. They also expect to be treated the same, whether onsite or remote. It’s up to leadership to make sure that happens.
The risks of creating a “two tier” system
Not all organizations are good at ensuring that employees are treated equally, and there are concerns that hybrid workplaces will create “two tiers” of workers, with onsite workers having an advantage over work from home (WFH) employees. Onsite workers will have more in person face time with management. Will that mean they will be favored for promotions? Will bias creep in, with managers paying more “positive” attention to those onsite? In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Wharton professor Peter Cappelli wrote, “unless an organization is terrific at managing performance carefully and objectively—and few are—face time still matters.”
There are also benefits to those informal, in-person conversations with coworkers (and possible mentors): the casual “water cooler” talk that exchanges information, shares knowledge, and builds relationships. The spontaneous conversations and collaborations that arise due to proximity can be valuable. Will such opportunities give onsite workers an advantage versus their WFH colleagues? Will WFH workers find that their careers suffer as a result?
Building trust and rapport can be more challenging when working remotely. That’s because the words we say are just a small part of communication. Behavioral psychologist Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s extensive research on the topic of body language resulted in the 7-38-55 rule of communication. He found that only 7% of communication is verbal. Nonverbal components such as the tone of our voice and our body language make up 38% and 55%, respectively. Much of this nuance can be lost in remote communication.
When we communicate face-to-face, there are all sorts of micro-behaviors that can be important in building relationships. “In a typical 10-minute conversation, studies show we can give away up to 150 micro-behaviors, which can be positive or negative,” business psychologist Jonathan Taylor said in an interview with The Conversation Space. “When we’re building trust with someone, the ‘micro-affirmations’ that we give away are really important – eye contact, open body language, building on what we hear. Our body language reinforces our words and our intent.”
The lack of proximity can also give rise to a type of bias — known as distance bias — that favors onsite workers. This is our brain’s tendency to favor things and people that are close to us in terms of time or space. The adage “out of sight, out of mind” comes to mind. We tend to give greater value, or worth, to what is at hand. But the converse is also true. “It’s also thinking that [something or somebody] further away is reduced in value,” neuroleadership expert David Rock told the Financial Review. For example, when we give more credence to team members in the meeting room than to remote attendees, we are showing distance bias. This bias can give us a less than complete picture of each team member’s contribution.
Leadership can help create equity for remote workers
So are remote workers at a disadvantage versus onsite workers? That will depend upon leadership’s awareness of possible inequity and how well they respond. Leaders can help level the playing field. For example, a recent study examined virtual, yet synchronous and informal, interactions between organizational newcomers and senior managers, and how they can affect performance and career outcomes of remote workers. The study found that “virtual water coolers” facilitated knowledge and advice sharing, and improved career prospects for those working remotely.
There are, of course, legal reasons to make fairness a priority, and companies can put in place ways to make sure everyone is treated the same. Establishing and following objective performance measures, creating operating norms for hybrid teams, and tracking pay increases and promotions are all examples. But beyond these processes and procedures, leaders need to be aware of the subtle ways that inequity appears and be proactive in counteracting it.
To combat distance bias, a leader should consider the best person for the job, not just the one who is closest in proximity. They should be on guard to prevent distance bias creeping into their decisions about who to promote, who should get a raise, or who should get the next project. Leaders should think about all their direct reports and strive to see the big picture. If they have questions or ideas about a new project, for example, they should go to the right person, not just the one who is nearby.
Leaders should also be sensitive to communication with remote workers and the possible effects of missing out on interpersonal cues and micro-behaviors. Virtual watercoolers or similar informal chats are a way to create more one-on-one face time. Getting together in person whenever possible would of course also be ideal. But regardless of whether in-person interaction is an occasional possibility, leaders can invest time in getting to know each of their direct reports and find ways to make a hybrid work environment fair for everyone.
Above all, leaders need to be aware of the risks of a two-tier workplace. According to a New York Times interview with Bryan Hancock, a partner at McKinsey & Company, his clients are “taking it on as a matter of broad equity.” That’s a smart approach, because the hybrid workplace and its challenges aren’t going away any time soon.