Avoiding the Perils of Proximity Bias in Hybrid Meetings

proximity bias

One lasting effect of the pandemic has been an upheaval in people’s expectations of where and how they work. Job-seekers are targeting remote-only positions that give them the freedom to search for employment across the country or even globally and to work from wherever they are. Long-term employees are negotiating with their companies to stay at least partially remote. Not only does it afford freedom, but it also provides practical benefits such as saving on gas by not commuting and greater focus without in-person interruption. 

What is Proximity Bias? 

Of course, there are challenges to remote and hybrid work. One of those is a phenomenon known as proximity bias. Especially in meetings, proximity bias—which is the idea that employees with close physical proximity to leadership and to each other will be more successful in their jobs—can be a serious impediment to individuals contributing fully, feeling heard, and being perceived as valuable team members. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a scary prospect for ambitious remote employees. For companies, it means they’re getting a lot less value from people they spent money to find, hire, and train. 

Here are just a few possible scenarios that can happen when proximity bias goes unchecked in an organization. 

  • When new projects pop up, those in the room get first dibs on leading them, thus offering more opportunities for career advancement.
  • Visitors, like high-level clients, go to lunch or have informal meetings with team members who are on-site.
  • Lunchroom, after work, and water cooler conversations can be substantive. Team members who are not around for them may be left out of decisions or new assignments.
  • Too many managers still base their trust in employees on marginally relevant observations like a firm handshake or a trustworthy face. (This can also be a DEI issue.)
  • It feels more formal or more of a chore to spontaneously pull a remote team member into a meeting. It’s easier to just lean over the cube wall to invite an in-person colleague.
  • Remote employees may be resented for a variety of reasons. They may have greater perceived freedom and can limit meeting times because they’re in a different time zone.

Business blogs and journals are full of solid systemic solutions that companies can enact to make remote workers feel more included, from online social events to assignment protocols to rethinking performance reviews. Since our specialty is meetings, we’re going to talk about some techniques for fully including remote employees in meetings. We’ll help ensure their on-camera presence doesn’t hinder success. 

We’ll look at three scenarios that require thinking about different aspects of proximity bias:  

  • Hybrid meeting solutions for all teams
  • For teams with leaders participating
  • And for teams that don’t function well

Hybrid Meeting Solutions for All Teams 

Let’s begin by looking at a team that had been continuously in-person and working well before the pandemic, but now some team members are remote. This team is in a good position to make some relatively easy changes that will ensure continued efficiency and participation as well as foster a sense of belonging for all team members. Even less-functional teams should adopt these practices, though there are additional suggestions for them below. 

  • Create and distribute meeting agendas with talking points assigned in advance. This is good practice for efficient meetings anyway. However, in a hybrid situation, it guarantees that everyone has a chance to be heard at least once as part of the planned agenda. It also means that the group in the room together can’t ignore the people on-screen for too long since those people have assigned roles. This approach also gets the people in the room habituated to talking with remote participants as though they were present.
  • Assign an in-person team member to monitor chat and advocate for remote participants. Making it one person’s job to stay in continuous contact with remote team members helps everyone participate in a timely manner, rather than minutes after the subject has changed. Consider rotating this role so that all in-person team members get accustomed to remaining aware of and responsive to remote participants.
  • Use a robust chat app, like Slack, during the meeting to share documents and links, send messages, and monitor tech glitches. Maintaining a separate communication channel like this allows remote participants to be “heard” even if they’re having a hard time breaking into the conversation verbally. Key questions that require input from everyone can be asked and answered in the chat to ensure equal attention. Finally, if someone’s screen freezes or they lose their internet connection, the team can be told right away.
  • Plan ahead for visuals, hands-on work, and co-creation. If meetings frequently include on-site work such as whiteboard calculations or storytelling, product demonstrations, or mockup creation, a little bit of advanced planning will help the whole team see what’s going on and contribute productively.
    • Use online whiteboards, like Miro or Google Jamboard. This allows everyone the same level of participation in co-creation or ideation exercises.
    • Log into the remote meeting software (Zoom, Teams) on a laptop that’s in the room, and use this as the demo camera. The owner of that laptop can then advocate for remote team members and remind those in the room to show what they’re doing on camera.
  • Publish meeting minutes in a timely fashion. In the (hopefully rare) event that a remote participant did not manage to be heard, there’s still an opportunity to get their input in response to what was said. As a learner said in a recent workshop, “If there’s no agenda and no minutes, it’s not a meeting, it’s a conversation.”

Hybrid Meeting Solutions for Teams with Leaders Participating 

It can be jarring to have a major decision-maker in a meeting regardless of where participants are located. People tend to focus the conversation on that person and give less attention to others in the room than they should. In hybrid meetings with a leader in the room, this tendency means that remote participants may be even more isolated and ignored. Here are some things you can do to promote equitable participation. 

  • If the leader is facilitating the meeting, it’s up to that person to ensure remote participants are included. (Be sure to practice the behaviors we’ve written about in other posts.) One easy way to accomplish this is for the leader to participate remotely, even if they’re on-site.
  • If the leader is in the room, seat them at the focal point of the room’s camera. This way, all participants can see that person.
  • Assign parts of the conversation or specific questions to each team member. Make sure remote workers have a chance to shine!
  • When appropriate, distinguish between the leader in the meeting (the highest-ranking person on the org chart) and the decision-maker. When possible, have at least one of those people participate remotely so that participants’ attention is more evenly distributed.

Hybrid Meeting Solutions for Teams That Don’t Function Well 

You may lead or be part of a team that worked well when everyone was together in the office. However, hybrid work could be a real struggle. Or your team may be dysfunctional for other reasons that lead to remote participants being ignored or slighted. If you have serious problems, call us to find out how we can help. 

In the meantime, here are some ideas. 

  • Insist that everyone participates remotely. Many of us have Zoom fatigue. However, making a meeting fully remote even when people are in adjacent offices levels the playing field.
  • Ask for written responses to key questions in advance. Make sure the meeting itself is spent responding to and refining those questions/ideas. This way, great ideas don’t get lost because their creator can’t get a word in.
  • Change ad hoc meetings to online discussions. Using Slack or another discussion platform, post your key questions and ask for responses and feedback by a certain deadline. This avoids the water cooler conversation that leaves out remote employees. It also ensures that ideas are properly credited.

Check Your Organization’s Proximity Bias 

The workspace upheaval of the last few years will continue to settle into new shapes and generate new processes. Therefore, it’s crucial to practice meeting behaviors that foster participatory equity and equal opportunity for remote employees. Make sure that your teams are starting down this path in the right way. Schedule a meeting with us today to get started. 

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