Many companies have come to learn that a hybrid workplace strategy that enables employees to choose when they work in an office or from home can be both a blessing and a curse. Although employees may appreciate the flexibility and quality-of-life improvements hybrid work provides, they may also feel burdened by it.
In particular, some employees end up feeling they're dividing their time between office and home not based on their own needs and preferences, but rather on those of their managers and colleagues. If they don't show face when others do, they'll lose their voice in collaborative meetings and risk the chance their input is treated less seriously than that of team members who are physically present.
Indeed, fending off proximity bias in the workplace is one of the biggest challenges leaders face when overseeing a hybrid workplace. Enabling a culture where remote workers are made to feel less committed than their in-office counterparts can quickly lead to a toxic environment, rather than an environment meant to be open and embracing of work-life balance.
Unified communications (UC) and collaboration tools, such as team chat and video meeting software, are essential components of today's hybrid work paradigm. They are now evolving to break down the barriers between in-office and at-home employees. Companies would do well to explore how they can take advantage.
Here are five ways to use UC and collaboration tools to reduce proximity bias in the workplace.
1. Support spontaneous brainstorming among disparate team members
Video-enabled virtual coworking apps enable colleagues to engage in group or individual discussions throughout the day by hopping into and out of virtual workspaces. The idea is to mimic the experience of physically stopping by a colleague's cubicle for a quick chat or gathering a few folks in a space carved out for team huddles. To make engagements more personal, make it easy for users to switch their one-on-one text chats to video chats.
2. Tap generative AI to coach better management techniques
One potential benefit of generative AI is its ability to analyze how employees interact and communicate with each other. In a UC and collaboration context, AI can provide coaching tips or recommend training aimed at eliminating proximity bias or other negative behaviors. Ideally, team leaders and members begin to understand the attitudes they may be inadvertently projecting as they engage with each other.
3. Enable employees to recognize each other
Create a "shout-out" channel -- or channels -- for the company overall, by department or for a project within a team collaboration app. This gives employees the opportunity to publicly recognize the good work or positive behaviors of others. Sharing highly visible virtual high-fives sends a positive message to remote workers recognized for their efforts or behaviors, as well as a signal that physical location doesn't matter.
4. Create an inclusive meeting environment
Couple your video meeting apps with meeting room technology that creates equity among in-room and remote attendees. For example, position multiple cameras around the room, provide center-room cameras or use both front-of-room and center-room cameras to achieve fuller meeting space coverage. This enables remote employees to see in-room participants equally, as well as each other, for smoother conversations and less frustration for everyone. Similarly, use in-room touch screens and virtual whiteboards so that everybody can work together on content and ideation -- regardless of where they are located.
5. Create a connected workspace
Connected workspaces serve a number of purposes, depending on use case. They may, for example, integrate productivity applications, such as project and task management, with knowledge bases and document repositories. They can also enable virtual team spaces for remote communications and collaboration. A connected workspace keeps employees on the same page no matter their location or time zone. Project assets are right at their fingertips, literally. What's more, no one is left floundering on where to find what or forced to switch from one app to another to collaborate, in real time or not, on a project.
Using these UC apps helps remote employees participate more equally with their in-office counterparts and it reduces the chances of proximity bias in the workplace becoming a serious issue.