the biases of the hybrid workplace

Culture takes center stage

The pandemic accelerated workplace transformations overnight! In the blink of an eye, work desks were replaced by beds at home; our colleagues were replaced by family members and the home became our office. With the lines blurred between work and home, it became important to also bring work culture to home.

Research suggests that companies with healthy work cultures have 3x greater total returns to shareholders. It is also suggested that 70% of workplace transformations fail largely due to culture-related challenges. While some employees are eager to return to the office full time, others aren’t so eager – owing to their cultural, financial or socioeconomic constraints. Experts say that offering people more flexibility over their choice of place to work would help attract and retain talent.

American real estate platform Zillow has said that more women have applied for jobs with them since they announced permanent work from home last year. The SaaS company Slack, which had also announced permanent remote positions last year, announced that there was a 50% increase in minority hires for remote positions.

Long standing barriers give way to new ones

A NASDAQ-listed Chinese travel agency, Ctrip conducted a WFH experiment. Their employees were assigned at random to either work from their home or from the office for 9 months. There was a 13% increase in performance when they were working from home. Work satisfaction increased and attrition halved. Yet, their promotion rate that was conditional on performance decreased. Ctrip rolled out the WFH option for all their employees due to the success of their experiment. Over half of their employees switched, which led to a 22% increase in gains.

While the hybrid workplace reduces longstanding barriers, it has also amplified another form of discrimination. Bias against remote workers has become the new obstacle to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. Companies like Ctrip, which are moving to a hybrid work model are still grappling with how best to eliminate the discrimination between workers who work from their homes and the office. Academics and experts call this the ‘proximity bias’. It is an unconscious and unwise tendency to provide preferential treatment to those in our immediate and constant vicinity. Yet, the definition of proximity at the workplace is now evolving. What was before a location inside the office is now a decentralised virtual space that has no borders.

Accidental favouritism

Like any other bias, the proximity bias is a natural instinct. It is part of our cognitive decision-making process. Experts say that we’ve used it for generations as a mental shortcut to prioritise our safety. Yet, the same prioritisation may not always lead to accurate and right judgements. We often end up making decisions based on knowledge or data.

The pandemic did not invent proximity bias, but it has made us become more aware of its effects. Picture your closest friend at work, did you immediately picture the one sitting the closest to you? We can all relate to occasions where the people we sit close to are the people we know the best and feel the most kinship to. This bias can induce a halo effect in the workplace, wherein we cultivate an inflated view of the professionals in our vicinity and overlook those who are further away. This halo effect can also blur the poor performance of those in the vicinity of the managers.

Proximity and productivity

Proximity bias in the long-term can successfully break down trust and have a negative impact on productivity. Feeling like you’re second class and feeling like your career opportunities are limited means that the employees’ interest in the company will decrease. It will lead to the company losing talented employees. It is vital for leaders and the management to have processes to ensure that they are connected with every person in their team. It might be helpful to reflect on everyday conversations with the team and analyze the way in which projects are being assigned. Thereby, leaders can ensure that everyone in the team is being treated equally, irrespective of whether they are working from home or office.

Bridging the gap

Co-creation is important as you seek to evolve your culture and perhaps right the wrongs of the past. The various groups of employees that comprise your hybrid workforce should have a voice and a clear role in reshaping your culture in support of I&D. The Roman poet, Seneca, had said that if you don’t know which port you are sailing towards, no wind would be the right wind. The talent can set the sails and steer the ship, but unless all of their compasses are aligned to the true north, the ship will not reach the port. In a hybrid workforce model, both sides should have a voice and a clear role in reshaping the culture of the companies in support of DEI initiatives.

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