How to tackle 'distance bias' when working from home

How can leaders avoid the trap of distance bias? UK Head of Learning and Development, Jane Grant, explains...

Distance bias is quite simply ‘out of sight, out of mind’.  It is the tendency to favour people who are closer to us in time and space.  During this time of extreme remote working, this can play out in your team and lead to your introverts being overlooked.

Team members who are more comfortable with technology and those who are natural relationship builders will thrive and adapt easily.  As a leader, your attention needs to be with those who are less comfortable working virtually and are naturally more introverted.  Having strategies to bring these team members into the virtual group and paying attention to their needs, will be critical for your whole team to stay connected and feel they are a community.  Team inclusivity has never been more important.

We all naturally place most attention on those who come to us proactively.  We trust them more, pick them for project work and communicate back to them more frequently.  We like them and make them part of our ‘in group’.  But research shows that this often flies in the face of the facts. They may not be the best person in your team to carry out a task, the most experienced nor the one we would delegate to, should we be face to face.

Using strategies like conversational turn taking and active listening will help all your team contribute, feel valued and ensure you are capturing all their ideas.

Those who are not communicating with you frequently have a whole range of reasons why they are not reaching out.  In addition to technology comfort and a natural ability to build relationships, they may feel they are bothering you, especially if you have a full diary.  It is essential that you tell your team that they are your priority, that you will make time for them and that they must reach out to you and more than that – you want them to and should proactively make the time to reach out to them regularly.  Not doing so, creates a bottleneck and that bottleneck is you!

Distance bias applies to tasks too.  Tasks that appear difficult to tackle remotely can be put on the back burner, left until you are able to meet in person or kicked into the long grass.  To overcome this, brainstorm with the team, to create strategies to deliver the task or project remotely.  Think about using technologies such as the whiteboard function in MS Teams; or https://mural.co/ to capture the team’s innovative ideas.  You could go ‘old school’ and have one team member write your ideas on post it notes and stick them on their wall, with their camera on!

This is a marathon, not a sprint.  It is not short term so prepare yourself and your teams for success. 

However, out of this time will come fantastic innovation, new ways of working and a greater diversity of teams, so when the initial phase settles, discuss with your team what you may want the new ‘normal’ to look like.

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Extra Resources:

For more on how to develop and sustain inclusive workplace relationship practices:

 

This blog was written by Jane Grant, UK Head of Learning and Development at WSP


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