Most employees prefer the experience of working remotely.
Until they don’t.
The 30-second commute to work, the comfort of working from home and the geographical independence – these are the aspects of remote work most coveted by employees.
But the part of the remote experience that some are less enthused about is the impact geographic location may have on career progression and opportunities at work. From promotions to plum assignments, there’s growing evidence working outside the office can negatively impact employee promotion.
The reason is proximity bias.
Out of sight, out of mind
While promotions (and what creates them) are complicated at the best of times, it’s often the case that career-defining decisions rely on perception, signaling and relationships as much as hard data. And if your workforce is split via a hybrid model, there’s a natural inclination for the non-data related factors to be skewed in favor of employees who spend the most time in the office. In other words, those that are seen the most are thought about the most. Proximity is a powerful thing.
What’s makes proximity bias so bad is the fact workers who come to the office are often perceived to be better workers than those who do not.
Even though this may not be the case at all [data from the Office for National Statistics in the UK finds remote workers do almost double the overtime when compared with their office-dwelling colleagues], research from University of California Santa Barbara reveals employees who work remotely are viewed as less committed and are found not to have as strong performance reviews as in-office workers. As such, the same survey also discovered (surprise, surprise) that better opportunities and assignments flowed to employees with the closest proximity to decision makers. Even though leaders instinctively know proximity bias is wrong, it’s still shocking to learn that 41% of surveyed company leaders recently said remote employees would be less likely to be considered for promotion.
Fight the urge
HRDs have to learn to fight this urge.
It’s hard to fight because perception is also powerful thing – especially when it comes to advancing professionally.
Even in an office-based setting, promotions and opportunities rely on signaling: What time people arrive. What time they leave. How much they speak up in meetings. This can lead to employees working on what’s like to get them noticed, rather than what’s most important.
If remote workers feel overlooked or invisible, it’s natural that an exaggerated need to fire off signals can creep in, further emphasizing visible action over meaningful work.
That’s why we – as HRDs – we must put an emphasis on something else: creating consistency of experience and opportunity so employees don’t feel like they have to fire off signals, as if shooting a flare gun into the night sky from a boat lost at sea.
So how can this be done?
To start with HRDs must banish the “two team syndrome.” As the name suggests, this is an environment where two distinct employee experiences exist between in-office and remote team members. In this type of environment, location can inhibit professional growth, envy can foster, and morale can dwindle. For some, it’s easy to shrug and simply think, “Well, that’s the price of working remotely”.
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But, if you are committed to building a modern workplace of the future that’s founded on hybrid work, it takes careful thought.
How to create consistency of experience and opportunity
Over-index on communication and information flow
When your team is split, communication takes on even more importance. Make sure you have a regular cadence of communication via a diversity of channels, so that all employees receive the same information, at the same time, regardless of where they are located. If you consistently share all company information – good or bad – to all employees, you’ll ensure all team members have the same set of facts, and live in the same work reality.
Take a values-based approach to hybrid work
The common wisdom when going hybrid is to nominate a few office-based days a week, and that’s that, you’re officially a hybrid workplace! But this can leave employees arbitrarily coming in on Tuesday and Thursdays, wondering why, of all days, am I going in today? So it makes sense to be more thoughtful and strategic about your hybrid approach. Determine when employees and your organization will get the most value from them being there. For instance, working on specific projects, attending certain meetings, or to be part of important team-based experiences. This value-based approach to hybrid work capitalizes on scarce face-to-face time. It can also breed inclusion by demonstrating to remote-first employees that they are part of your team’s most important functions.
Actively prioritize relationship building
Like a long-distance relationship, collaboration and relationships in a hybrid environment take concerted effort. When designing and managing your hybrid workforce, it’s paramount that you make relationship-building efforts a central tenet. Make these activities unique to your team rather than as generic team building activities. This personalized approach is what’s referred to as “signature practices”. That is, relationship-building models and activities that are “memorable, difficult for others to replicate, and particularly well suited to your own business environment.” Additionally, provide team members with the opportunity to move across functions, teams and departments. When they do, the legacy of their existing relationships will follow them, creating new pathways between various segments of your team.
Rethink your definition of productivity
The advent of remote work was a global rethinking of how work gets done. It only makes sense, then, that a rethinking of how we define, measure and manage productivity should follow. At the foundational level, time worked should not be a core metric for productivity. If it is, you run the risk of building a culture of “presenteeism”, where being on a Zoom call or logging a set number of hours is misconstrued as productivity. Instead of focusing on time, use a performance management system like objectives and key results (OKRs) to assess productivity and quantify accomplishments. Another part of rethinking productivity is granting employees the flexibility to work when they are most productive, not set hours. What we’ve seen first-hand through working with 1,300+ teams at Insightful is that time of day can significantly impact individual productivity. Just as some people are morning people and others are night owls, some employees are morning producers while others prefer the quiet calm of evening work.
Formalize your promotion policy
An effective promotion policy gives you a framework for advancing and promoting employees. A well-designed policy will help minimize the gray area of promotions, limiting the likelihood of proximity swaying decisions and disadvantaging remote employees. At a minimum, your formal promotion policy should clearly outline and weight the criteria against which promotions are assessed, including:
- Relevant experience to the open position
- Tenure at your organization
- A skillset that aligns with the requirements of the new role
- Top percentile results in recent employee evaluations
- Assessment of personal motivation for the change in role
Your policy will help prevent promotions that are:
- Not backed by quantitative performance data
- Based on subjective managerial assessments
- Due to favoritism, discrimination or nepotism
A final word…
Hybrid work is more than simply a compromise between employees who have a penchant for working from home and office-favoring leaders. Done right, hybrid work offers flexibility, efficiencies and a boost to productivity that neither remote nor office-based work offer on their own.
Realizing the myriad benefits of hybrid work rests heavily on creating consistency of employee experience. By following the principles above, you’ll be on your way to building your hybrid team on a foundation of inclusion and merit-based opportunity.