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Overcoming Remote Work Unconscious Bias

Diversity & Inclusion

Overcoming Remote Work Unconscious Bias

The landscape of work has undergone a profound transformation, with the increase of remote work accelerated by the global COVID-19 pandemic. While this shift has brought about numerous benefits, it has also given rise to new challenges, one of which is the prevalence of unconscious bias in virtual teams. In this article, we’ll explore the nuances of unconscious bias in remote work settings and discuss strategies to overcome these biases for a more inclusive and equitable work environment.

Understanding Unconscious Bias in Remote Work

Unconscious bias, by definition, refers to the automatic judgments and stereotypes that influence our decision-making processes without conscious awareness. In remote work settings, where face-to-face interactions are limited, these biases can thrive without the usual corrective feedback mechanisms that occur in traditional office settings. In an office, coworkers are more likely to observe bias as a bystander and either help correct the perpetrator’s behavior or support the person experiencing the bias. In a remote setting, this type of corrective interaction is much less likely to occur.

Forms of Unconscious Bias in Virtual Meetings

Virtual meetings, while a crucial tool for remote collaboration, can inadvertently contribute to the reinforcement of unconscious bias in several ways.

1 . Visual Cues and Appearance Bias: In a virtual meeting, participants may make judgments based on the appearance of their colleagues. For instance, virtual teams often have a more casual presence, which can lead to bias when individuals form opinions about a team member's professionalism or competence based on their clothing or background. And since you’re usually only looking at a person from the waist up, you may not get all the body cues you would in person and most people will fill in what they think the person looks like and have an unconscious bias based on that.

2 . Screen Time Bias: Participants who are more prominently displayed on the screen due to their camera placement may receive more attention and recognition. This can lead to biases in perceived importance, with those less visible being inadvertently marginalized.

3 . Time Zone Bias: Teams spread across different time zones may face challenges with scheduling meetings that accommodate everyone. Unconscious bias may arise if meetings consistently favor the working hours of one region, potentially sidelining the contributions of team members in other time zones.

4 . Speaker Order and Dominance Bias: The order in which participants speak can unintentionally favor certain voices over others. The absence of physical cues and body language in virtual settings might amplify more vocal members of the team over others who may be naturally quieter due to personality or cultural differences. If individuals from underrepresented groups consistently speak last, their perspectives might be perceived as less important.

5 . Technology Competency Bias: Unconscious bias may arise when individuals make assumptions that older team members are less adept at using virtual tools, which might lead to overlooking their valuable contributions.

6 . Home Environment Bias: Participants may form unfair judgments about colleagues based on their home environments visible in the background. This could include assumptions about socioeconomic status, which may inadvertently impact perceptions of an individual's capabilities or professionalism.

7 . Nonverbal Communication Bias: Misinterpretation of nonverbal cues in a virtual setting, such as a coworker’s silence or facial expression, may be wrongly interpreted as agreement or lack of interest, potentially leading to the overlooking of their input.

8 . Language and Cultural Bias: Remote teams that come from various cultural backgrounds and nationalities are more likely to be dispersed across the globe. Participants may unintentionally favor individuals who speak the dominant language fluently, overlooking the valuable contributions of those with different linguistic backgrounds.

Impact of Distance Bias in Hybrid Settings

Distance or proximity bias, the tendency to favor individuals who are physically closer, poses a significant challenge in hybrid work settings where some people may work in the office while others work remotely. Lower productivity may result as remote team members can face barriers to accessing timely information, opportunities for collaboration, or impromptu interactions that occur within the physical workspace. Decreased employee engagement becomes a notable effect of these unconscious biases, as feelings of demoralization and exclusion may affect the experiences of those working at a distance.

Research-backed best practices recommend addressing proximity bias by openly acknowledging it as a potential issue within your organization. Despite evidence showing increased productivity in remote work, humans tend to intuitively value contributions that they see in the office over those that occur from home. But without a commute, it’s been shown that remote employees spend more than one-third of their traditional commute time on work instead.

To counter this bias, organizational leaders must recognize and call out proximity bias as a natural human behavior. Not only is distance bias unjust, but it also poses a threat to DEI efforts because women and people of color often have a stronger preference for remote work. According to a recent Harris Poll survey, 52% of women express a preference for long-term remote work enjoyment, in contrast to 41% of men. When working from home, 63% of Black workers and 58% of women express feeling more ambitious compared to an office setting (and compared to just 46% of men). The data also reveals that 52% of Black workers and 50% of women view remote work as more advantageous for career advancement, a sentiment shared by only 42% of men.

Strategies to Mitigate Unconscious Bias

Mitigating unconscious bias in remote and hybrid settings requires a proactive approach. This involves individuals identifying and addressing their own biased actions or behaviors. Unconscious bias training can serve as an excellent tool to uncover the influence of biases and provide an avenue for self-reflection about an employee’s own biases. Other practical strategies for preventing bias from impacting employee engagement must be tailored to the specific biases at play. For example, combatting dominance bias can be achieved through structured speaking orders or rotations, ensuring equitable participation, and encouraging leaders to actively seek input from all team members. For screen time bias, encourage participants to adjust their screen layouts periodically to ensure fair visibility, while rotating meeting times can mitigate time zone bias, ensuring inclusivity across regions.

For biases related to technology competency, employers can provide training to ensure proficiency in virtual tools and encourage a culture that values a diverse range of skills. To tackle appearance or home environment bias, diversity training can help create a non-judgmental culture emphasizing that everyone's surroundings are unique, directing focus towards the content of discussions instead of employee appearance. Nonverbal communication bias can be minimized by offering training on effective communication and stressing the importance of clear verbal cues. Cultural competency training is crucial for addressing language bias and creating an environment where diverse linguistic backgrounds are valued. Adopting these strategies, coupled with ongoing awareness initiatives, contributes to creating more inclusive virtual meeting environments free from unconscious bias.

Promoting Equity in Remote & Hybrid Workplaces

Creating a culture where individuals feel safe to address and discuss these issues openly can also contribute to building trust and promoting equity within a remote or hybrid team. For example, EasyLlama’s Anonymous Reporting & Case Management tool allows employees to confidentially submit feedback or concerns about biases without fear of retaliation. It is through these deliberate communication efforts that organizations can create a virtual work environment that not only acknowledges but actively combats microaggressions, promoting inclusivity and fostering a sense of belonging for all team members.

As we navigate the shift toward more hybrid environments, promoting equity becomes crucial for a workplace where all employees can thrive. Making virtual meetings friendly for remote participants, implementing uniform communication strategies, and embracing flexible work schedules are essential steps. Actively considering remote employees for opportunities and intentionally fighting distance bias in decision-making processes is key to creating a fair and balanced virtual and hybrid work environment.

With EasyLlama’s DEI & harassment prevention training and courses tailored for remote employees, employers can foster an inclusive organization where each individual, regardless of their physical location, feels valued and heard. Using modern content, interactive quizzes, and real-life remote video scenarios, your employees will learn how to develop a secure and inclusive virtual workspace. Take advantage of the opportunity to preview a free course from EasyLlama today and gain insights into our modern approach to fostering inclusivity in the remote work landscape!

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