Written by: Fraser Duncumb, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Debates around hybrid working are ignoring the real question: how to make it work. When your team members are working at different levels of remoteness, how can you use technology to build/maintain truly equal relationships with every one of them?
Fuelled by the ongoing fallout of the Great Resignation, companies everywhere are chasing the dissonant goals of stabilizing their work environment whilst simultaneously re-examining established practices. The debate between embracing tradition and pursuing innovation has never been louder, and close to the heart of it is the discussion around hybrid working.
Recently, I read a Washington Post article in which the author, Karla L Miller, aimed to debunk various misconceptions about remote working. One of these misconceptions was that hybrid workplaces create a ‘multi-tier reward structure where in-person workers receive more opportunities than remote workers’ – that remote workers are negatively impacted by proximity bias.
Miller argued that whilst promotions and opportunities can be influenced by proximity bias, this is just a result of ‘passive, lazy management’ which relies on ‘subjective measures like “visibility” and “cultural fit”. My advocacy for cultural fit aside, I’m inclined to agree that managers can decrease the effects of proximity bias by utilizing tech to strengthen their relationships with remote employees but proximity bias is not solely a product of lazy management. In fact, avoiding proximity bias is incredibly hard when hybrid working is in session.
To eliminate bias, you’d need to create and maintain equal connections between yourself and all of your team members, no matter how often each of them is in the same room as you. That’s no small feat. There's also no reason to dismiss hybrid working, though. Too often, conversations about the effectiveness (and fairness) of hybrid work center around the potential pitfalls of this model, rather than how to overcome them.
The issue of proximity bias is important in its own right, but it’s also an indicator of a web of other obstacles standing between a manager and their remote team members. To inch closer to being affected by proximity bias, you only need to suffer a slight difference in communication between your in-house and remote employees, which then has knock-on effects it makes it harder for you to approach one another, it weakens your interpersonal and working relationship, and it impacts your team’s levels of engagement and job satisfaction.
So how can you, as a manager, create and nurture equal social and working relationships with all of your team members and give each of them the right amount and types of interaction to help them thrive despite their varying levels of remoteness?
To break this down, I’m looking at 4 key aspects of the in-person work experience that remote team members can easily miss out on:
Without the hubbub of the workplace around you, it can be easy for your brain to meld into your work and forget its position in the human body. The interactions we have with those around us are what tie us back to ourselves, whilst reminding us of our place in something much larger.
Small talk at work has been shown to have positive effects that surpass its seemingly distracting nature, and it plays an essential role in warding off feelings of loneliness for employees who are working remotely. Being social with your team members (and facilitating team-wide social interactions) isn’t just a matter of maintaining equal relationships all around, it can even play a part in keeping your whole team healthy loneliness has been shown to pose an equal health threat as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
To combat loneliness for your remote employees and strengthen teamwide connections, you can create virtual lounges on platforms like Slack or Teamwork purely dedicated to social chit-chat.
A recent study of over 500 remote employees from across the world also showed that teams thrive when they have scheduled social gatherings like quizzes, shared playlists, book recommendations, and movie clubs.
Even with social channels and gatherings going on, you and your team members could have very little idea of what’s going on in each other's lives throughout the day and this can cause a lot of strain on relationships and collaborations.
The Harvard Business Review talks about the importance of seeing facial expressions to promote ‘mutual understanding’, i.e. reading the moods of others, which helps everybody in the team to empathize with each other and communicate better. The HBR states that, when these cues are lost, collaboration becomes more transactional, and team members are more likely to perceive hostility in each other’s communications due to a lack of context (e.g. seeing their colleague is having a rough day).
Having video call meetings that allow for richer forms of communication is key, HBR advises, and tagging an extra 10-15 minutes onto your meetings for catchup time gives everybody a chance to get connected before you get into the serious stuff. (Dedicating time for everybody to go around saying explicitly how they’re doing can also be helpful for team members who find visual cues less accessible.)
If your in-house team has had any catch-ups throughout the day already, it’s also important to relay them to your remote team members during the start of your meeting so they stay in the loop about all the small things.
When you’re in the same room as your team members, many of them can look over and see if it’s a good time to come to you with a question, and vice versa. Without these visual cues, it can be hard for either of you to gauge when to pull each other for a quick chat.
Setting aside some open hours when you’re around for a drop-in gives all of your team members a good idea of when to call/come over for a chat, and it helps your remote employees to feel more comfortable doing so. (And again, this can be massively helpful for team members who don’t find visual cues helpful.)
Having daily 1-to-1s with your remote team can also make you more approachable to them. Video calling them every day, even for a short period of time, gives both of you the chance to check-in, talk through any issues and stay connected. Even if all you do is look at each other's faces for a bit, seeing each other daily is proven to make you fonder of each other by nature of the mere exposure effect (the thing that causes proximity bias).
Your level of exposure to your remote employee is important here not just so you can assess how they’re doing and what support they need it’s also essential that their relationship with you remains strong so that when there is something they need to talk about, they’ll feel comfortable reaching out to you.
This is the hardest thing to substitute with your remote employees. Jim Kalbach’s Forbes article ‘Planned Spontaneity: The Paradoxical Solution For A Placeless Workplace’ sums it up through the title alone.
In this article, Kalbach reveals that 43.2% of remote employees said the most frustrating part of remote working was not being able to collaborate on the fly proving that though spontaneity may be hard at best, impossible at worst, there’s something alluring about it.
Whilst Kalbach suggests many reasonable ways of informally connecting with remote team members (e.g. virtual water-cooler chats), his conclusion that spontaneity can happen “with a little planning” feels like a stretch.
The necessary planning that goes into communicating across workspaces isn’t all bad, though – it can give remote employees the ability to carve out the structure of their day. Remote employees can decide: when to respond to conversations, which conversations they can effectively contribute to, and when to arrange meetings. This autonomy increases not only job satisfaction, but also productivity.
Instead of trying to simulate spontaneity, why not explore the value it brings to the table, and replicate that in a way which honors the new boundaries of your remote team’s schedules and gives your in-house team the ability to control their day in the same way.
So what is the value of spontaneity?
Impromptu chats have one standout advantage over meetings they remove the pressure to contribute, encourage people to take their time forming ideas, and allow employees just to sit back and listen if they have nothing to add.
Having a section of your workday dedicated to optional, relaxed collaboration is a great way to go. You can create a video chat that stretches over a set period, that all of your team members are welcome to drop in and out of. Using a group messaging chat to see who’s logging into the call can also help team members gauge if they feel like coming along.
Replicating real-life interaction isn’t a mainstream possibility in the immediate future, but you can replicate the value behind an interaction and this is a lot easier if you don’t allow yourself to get hung up over disparity of form.
The difficulty of building and strengthening relationships online has a lot to teach us about how we interact off-screen; figuring out how to have valuable connections through the internet first, then working backward to match these interactions with in-person encounters can have great success in balancing (and improving) relationships between all of your team members. Attempting to replicate real-life situations in the hopes that their virtual shadows will stand at the same height and color, without first looking at the intention of the interaction, is an exasperating exercise.
Ultimately, the drawbacks of remote working are not reasons to dismiss it as a mode of work, but equally, the advantages are not just something to be thankful for they can illuminate areas for improvement in the physical workspace, and even offer solutions.
Fraser Duncumb, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Fraser Duncumb is an expert in the employee engagement field. He believes that every person has the ability, enthusiasm, and creativity to excel in their work if only given the right conditions. Fraser is the CEO of Wotter, a platform that empowers companies to make work even better for their team, by tracking the effectiveness of employee engagement initiatives in order to continuously improve them. It’s Fraser’s conviction that the success of individuals is what propels a company, and he is committed to promoting a focus on engagement at this personal level.