Managers must think about two significant features of the hybrid office world – proximity bias and loneliness.
Proximity bias involves giving intentional or unintentional disparate treatment to the people closest to you in geography or time zone. It has always been a feature of work. People at head office traditionally had an advantage in promotions and power (although often some workers have found it advantageous to hide in far corners of the enterprise, away from the powers-that-be). Major companies would bring top talent into head office as they were being prepared for the top rungs.
But now even people in head office are not necessarily in head office, at least every day. Remote work has rewritten the equation. Yet it’s harder to rewrite the tendency for managers to collaborate more with – and favour – those they are physically around.
When a quick decision needs to be made, it’s easier to call colleagues in neighbouring offices together for a quick huddle. Decisions can also come serendipitously out of chats between managers dropping into one another’s office, having lunch together, meeting on the elevator or sharing a drink after work. In the remote era, conscious if often vain efforts were made to keep such collaboration going virtually; now with hybrid work it will be simpler to default to those physically proximate. There might be a tendency to hand off big projects to people you regularly see and similarly ask them to fill in for you on vacation.
Consultants Karin Hurt and David Dye say it’s important to talk about proximity bias with your team, rather than ignoring the issue and hoping for the best. “Spend time communicating about how you communicate,” they write on their blog. If the goal is to be inclusive, what’s working now and what barriers need to be addressed? Obviously, those working remotely or coming into the office less frequently need to be canvassed about what they are experiencing.
The consultants highlight one-on-ones for keeping close to your staff, creating clarity and removing roadblocks. I’d suggest overbalancing those one-on-ones toward people you see the least.
They add this warning: “One trap that’s easy to fall into in hybrid teams is to have too much of the conversation flow through you, and not enough collaboration among the team. Look for ways to have your hybrid team members work together on special projects, brainstorm ideas or solve problems – be deliberate to pair up people who work in different locations.”
They also urge you to lead your meetings from both sides of the hybrid table. You probably routinely facilitate meetings from the main office with remote members dialling in. Occasionally lead the meeting from a remote location while others are still gathered in the conference room. “It’s important to experience the frustrations that your team members may be afraid to speak up and mention,” they say.
Managers will need to be purposeful with the time when everyone – or almost everyone – is together in the office or at a retreat. Consider carefully how you can get the most return on your time together.
Ms. Hurt and Mr. Dye also highlight the need to be conscious of time zones. They have worked with global teams that only have a two-hour window when any of their schedules can reasonably overlap. Those teams learned to use that time purposefully for their most important synchronous communication. The teams also established norms and response time expectations for their asynchronous interaction.
You can also help your team sort through the hybrid challenges by posing these two questions from consultant Kevin Eikenberry: “If you come to the office and have no interaction, why did you come in? If you are home all day and can never work on an individual project because of meetings, should you have chosen to work in the office?”
That distinguishes between the advantages inherent working in proximity to others and the advantages to a remote, perhaps solitary, situation. He argues not every work day should be the same and people should arrange themselves in harmony with their work space. If you want your team to be effective, it’s worth raising the issue in a meeting and one-to-ones.
Recent research into loneliness associated with hybrid workplaces in Western Australia is also worth considering. Survey respondents felt lonelier, on average, when working from home than in the office, with 22 per cent stating they often or always felt isolated from others when working from home compared with 19 per cent who felt that way when working in the office. That’s actually a greater difference than appears at first glance: People were about 16 per cent more likely to be lonely at home.
The researchers looked at factors influencing it such as age, gender, working hours and hours worked from home, but only colleague support while at the office (not, interestingly, while at home) was a significant predictor of reduced loneliness. And, crucially, colleague support was more important than managers’ support.
“The good news in this finding is that, in the case of hybrid workers, support from colleagues when in the office can protect against loneliness. This is probably because connecting with others face-to-face enables higher-quality, more meaningful interactions to take place and increases a sense of belonging to a workplace,” academics Caroline Knight, Doina Olaru, Julie Anne Lee, and Sharon K. Parker wrote in MIT Sloan Management Review.
As you deal with proximity bias also consider how to connect colleagues better when they are together in the office.
- Speaker coach Josh Storie recommends speaking to the camera as if it was a participant in hybrid presentations. Say one sentence to one person, then the next sentence to another participant, with the camera gaining your attention every four to six people, depending on audience size.
- Sales coach Steve Keating stresses that leaders need to understand that the majority of people feel a sense of loss whenever change happens in their lives. Even if something better is around the corner it’s human nature to focus on the familiar thing that will be jettisoned. Ignoring that legitimate need might encourage followers to try to derail what you’re pushing.
- Software specialist Jacob Kaplan-Moss urges you to ruthlessly narrow the requirements you are seeking when recruiting because you are unlikely to find a candidate who will check all the boxes your team comes up with initially. What requirements can you absolutely not live without? He suggests even skills the right person can pick up in six months on the job should be scratched from the list.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.
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