Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the PAN Communications team generally gathered in person in one physical space. Though many companies were working in a form of a hybrid environment pre-pandemic — headquarters in New York working with offices in San Francisco and London, for example — now more than ever leaders need to ensure that team members have equal access to people, information and opportunities — regardless of their physical location.
Far from disappearing, virtual work is continuing to change and grow. To learn about how to be effective leaders in an evolving hybrid work environment, our managers recently participated in a training session with Sacha Connor, founder and CEO of Virtual Work Insider and a veteran leader of hybrid marketing, sales and innovation teams for eight years while at The Clorox Company. Here, we are sharing our key learnings from the session, all of which rest on one principle: mitigating distance bias.
The first step in being an effective virtual leader is being aware of and mitigating proximity bias through intentional planning.
Distance or proximity bias is our brain’s natural tendency to place greater importance on things and people that are closer to us than those that are farther away. Gone are the days of popping over to any co-worker’s desk if you have a question, or the guarantee that the entire office will gather in the same conference room on a regular basis. The first step in being an effective virtual leader is being aware of and mitigating proximity bias through intentional planning.
Here are some practical tips to create a location-inclusive mindset.
The first step of defining your organization’s new norms for communication is deciding which communications should be synchronous vs. asynchronous. Generally, this falls on a spectrum: FYIs, updates and deliverables can generally be handled asynchronously via email. On the other end of the spectrum, problem solving, resolving conflict, and complex decision making lend themselves more to synchronous meetings, but could even have an async pre-work component. If a synchronous meeting is appropriate, some practical tips for ensuring good meeting hygiene include asking yourself:
With team members spread across cities, states and countries, hybrid teams must find a way to communicate effectively across time zones and varying work schedules. To effectively do this, leaders must be intentional about creating a schedule that works for the entire team. It will take some iteration to figure out core meeting hours and what times should be off limits.
First, consider a “digital-first” meeting — meaning that if there is even one person attending the meeting virtually, everyone logs in from their own device (and in some cases, their own workspace) to level the playing field.
If the meeting is hybrid — including people attending remotely and people in a central location — ensure facilitators are aware of distance bias and have a plan for including all participants, regardless of location. It’s also helpful for the facilitator to have a dedicated person who oversees the meeting chat and helps with technical problems. Remote participants may also benefit from a “buddy” in the physical location to help them interject in the conversation.
While we collectively hope an end to the COVID-19 pandemic is near, there are many lessons we have learned over the last two years that will stay with us — one of which is the importance and benefits of empowering people to work from where they work best. Though many will return to a physical office space, others will not. As leaders, we must prioritize defining and role modeling new norms and create a location-inclusive culture.