3 biases that hinder hybrid working (and how to solve them)

Written by Robert Gould  • Future of work  •  18 January 2022

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A healthy company culture should promote trust – not just between the organisation and its people, but also between employees and their peers. Unfortunately, one of the more common casualties of a hybrid working model is company culture. For all the advantages of flexible working, a distributed workforce faces greater opportunities for potential misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication and trust.

In a pre-pandemic, in-person office setting, employees had the ability to form connections with one another through face-to-face interactions, and build a sense of community. The social bonding that occurs during workplace rituals such as catching up over coffee and enjoying lunch together is difficult to replicate virtually. Even colleagues who do not necessarily have complementary personality types could grow to understand their differences and respective ways of working when operating in a communal space.

According to our new whitepaper, The Future is Hybrid, 52% of employees would prefer to work under a hybrid-remote model. From better work-life balance to lower childcare costs, there are many benefits that hybrid workers enjoy. But without the common ground that the traditional workplace provides, both literally and figuratively, your people may develop certain biases against their colleagues. While they may manifest in seemingly innocuous ways at first, these biases can grow to have a drastically negative impact on your company culture.

A breeding ground for bias

A hybrid working model typically involves a certain number of employees or specific teams working remotely, while other employees continue to work in the office. However, it can also consist of a split schedule for all between working remotely and working on-site – usually three days per week in the office and two from home (or some other off-site location). In fact, according to a recent McKinsey survey, 88% of C-suite executives expect their employees to spend at least three days a week working on-site.

No matter what your organisation’s hybrid model looks like, it could become a breeding ground for bias. When employees aren’t working with their colleagues in person, and don’t have the opportunity to collect information and ask questions directly, or read their tone and facial cues, it is all too easy for them to make assumptions from afar. In addition, there are also biases that individuals develop specifically when they are working alone.

Here are some of the hybrid working biases that every organisation should be looking out for, as well as ways to combat them and optimise your hybrid working model.

Proximity bias

Proximity bias occurs when an individual who works in close physical proximity to their colleagues and senior leadership is perceived as better and more productive than their remote-working counterparts. This allows them to build a better case for promotion and career progression.

While hybrid employees ostensibly have the option of not returning to the workplace on a full-time basis, if senior leadership choose to base themselves at the office, this implies that the best way to be seen as an active member of the team is to work on-site.

As a result, hybrid working presents potential for inequalities between employees who are in a position to access office spaces regularly and those who are more reliant on a flexible remote working arrangement for whatever reason, i.e. family or a disability.

Solution

Senior leadership have a big role to play in levelling the playing field between on-site and remote employees. It is up to them to clearly communicate that all employees will be treated equally, and reinforce their commitment to sustaining a supportive and inclusive company culture.

Your workforce will appreciate receiving this clarification from the top level. In addition, if senior leadership commit to working primarily outside of the office, this can also help eliminate potential inequalities.

Organisations should determine promotions and reward decisions by capturing and analysing data. Ensure that data is crosscut by diverse groups and those working in a flexible way, and act quickly to address any bias. To assist with the advancement of hybrid workers, practice the principle of amplification, by rotating opportunities for all colleagues to contribute to ideas sharing and those leading client projects.

In-Group/Out-Group bias

When a divide occurs between employees who work from the office and those who work from home, this is known as in-group/out-group bias.

People tend to favour and connect with those who share the same circumstances as them. This is a natural human instinct, but if left unmonitored in a hybrid workplace, it can lead to office cliques, disrupt collaboration, and leave those in the out-group feeling isolated as they work from home.

The risk of office cliques forming is particularly high when employees can select which days they work from the office, as they may only choose to come in when their friends are also on-site.

Solution

Consider introducing ‘anchor days’ to your hybrid working model. These are mandatory in-office days for all hybrid employees. These can help maintain a healthy mix of personalities and ideas in your workplace, and prevent your company culture from stagnating.

Implementing awareness programmes and processes that promote the importance of connecting with out-of-office colleagues can also help. Equip meeting rooms with large screens that enable remote workers to be more present in conversations, and consider publishing best practice guidance for conducting ‘hybrid’ meetings. Avoid unplanned in-office meetings that remote employees won’t be able to join at a moment’s notice, and discourage teams from having important discussions spontaneously.

New starter bias

Employees joining a hybrid organisation post-pandemic face unique challenges. Whereas their colleagues may have been working together for years, new starters haven’t yet had the chance to establish in-person dynamics with their team or fully immerse themselves in the company’s culture. For this reason, new starters may initially struggle to see themselves as part of the organisation, especially if they are working fully remotely.

Solution

Managers will need to do everything they can to help new recruits integrate with their new hybrid team, and the company in general. There are many ways to give them a warm welcome – from treating them to lunch, delivered straight to their door, or gathering the whole team over a video call to cook a meal, take part in a quiz, or play icebreaker games.

Download our “The Future is Hybrid: Embrace an agile workforce” whitepaper for an in-depth look at the different types of remote working models plus actionable tips for successfully implementing the right model for your organisation.

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