It’s natural for us to venture towards people we are familiar with and see everyday. However, in a hybrid workforce, it could leave employees behind that choose to work from home or are in the office less than others. That’s why employers are aiming to be intentional in making decisions to avoid proximity bias and ensure meeting equity so that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate and excel in the workplace.
These terms may be more familiar now, but prior to the pandemic they didn’t exist. So let’s break them down.
Meeting equity – what’s that?
Meeting equity is when everyone in the hybrid workplace has equal opportunity to communicate, contribute and share ideas, whether they are in the office or working remotely.
“For instance, if the leader and other staff are in the office and there are a few remote employees on Zoom, the in-office people may forget about the remote staff and make them feel like an afterthought,” said Coleman. “Those remote staff lose out on the opportunity to participate, collaborate, share their ideas and contribute to the larger effort.”
Technology company Barco found in its meeting equity report that 80% of people believe tech can improve meetings. Additionally, one in three workers struggle to feel heard during hybrid meetings and one in four workers find it difficult to speak up. The report revealed that 56% of workers said meeting leaders focus too heavily on those who are physically present in the meeting room.
“Are you even having all the conversation when everyone’s on Zoom?,” said Annette Reavis, chief people officer at Envoy. “Don’t keep talking [in-person] when the Zoom goes off. Don’t talk about something after the meeting is over. Don’t have the conversation away from the conversation.”
How can technology help ensure meeting equity?
Barco’s report found that seven in 10 workers are frustrated by recurring technical issues.
Poly, a workplace solutions technology company which serves all Fortune 500 companies, has helped businesses upgrade their technology so that it’s easy for everyone to have similar experiences during meetings, whether or not they’re joining from the office or at home.
“The ideal solution depends on the other users in a meeting,” said David Bryan, chief technology officer at Poly. “The ideal has become more of a portfolio of options so the right device depends on the space and how you want to use it. It’s smarter about the mix and match.”
Rethinking large conference rooms for hybrid use is where technology really comes into play. Poly recommends companies consider the seating configuration, voice-activated intelligent commands, biometrics and gesture recognition, intelligent framing, background noise suppression and meeting transcriptions. Having an intentional layout would ensure that both a remote and in-person worker feels confident to speak during a meeting and can follow what is being discussed.
What new tech is helping achieve this?
Poly has found that companies are interested in its Poly Studio E70 camera, which is an intelligent camera with dual lenses that can recognize where people are in the room and allows you to choose between group framing, people framing or speaker framing to create a more equitable experience for hybrid meetings.
“Some of our partners, like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, are looking to enable multiple streams so that we can have our own little box [on the screen for remote workers] when we’re in the meeting,” said Bryan.
However, having the room view is equally important to consider, especially for remote workers.
“A lot of cues are nonverbal,” said Bryan. “I want to see even when you’re not speaking, how you’re reacting, if you look bored and the topic needs to be changed.”
Audio is also key to achieving meeting equity. Some remote workers might keep their audio and video off if they are in a noisy, shared space. Poly has seen a lot of interest in its acoustic fence technology that minimizes all background noise.
“Remote workers have to be able to cut into the conversation and be heard just as clearly as the people who are sitting in that room,” said Bryan. “You want to hear from all of your employees.”
Owl Labs is another company that provides tech to make hybrid easier. The Meeting Owl 3, which was designed and created for meeting equity, is an AI-powered 360-degree camera, mix and speaker that automatically zooms in on whoever is speaking.
“With the classic set-up of a webcam on the wall, remote participants in virtual meetings often feel like they’re standing on the sidelines or even hovering above their teams in the conference room with a static birds-eye view, while the in-room meeting participants are looking at each other instead of the camera,” said Frank Weishaupt, CEO of Owl Labs.
So what exactly is proximity bias and is it unavoidable?
Proximity bias is when employees who are in close physical proximity to leaders or people in positions of authority are perceived as being more capable, or are given tasks before workers who might be remote.
“As a result of this close proximity, leaders may give those employees greater opportunity and preference to grow in their careers – from high-profile projects, key assignments, development opportunities or better performance ratings – just because they are nearby,” said Bernard Coleman, chief diversity and engagement officer at human resource management company Gusto.
It’s when “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” comes into play, although it shouldn’t.
Reavis, chief people officer at Envoy said there is no way to fully avoid proximity bias, however leaders can and should be intentional in their actions to reduce it.
“Proximity bias is something that’s actually always existed,” said Reavis. “It’s more amplified in the hybrid workplace.”
Coleman and Reavis say it comes down to leaders educating themselves on what proximity bias is and then operating with an inclusive lens.
“As a leader, I know it happens, I think about it and I have to try really hard not to think about the people that are closest to me when I want to get something done, when I want to think about how I trust people to get that stuff done,” said Reavis.
How can employers reduce proximity bias?
It comes down to education and awareness, and then an organization can begin to build frameworks and guidelines that minimize inequity. As a leader, it’s important to take inventory of who is leading certain assignments and being provided opportunities.
“The first step is to acknowledge that it is a thing and that it does exist and has existed,” said Reavis. “Then go from there to understand what you need to do to do your best to break down some of the barriers, understanding that human nature is still going to exist.”
For Reavis, that means thinking about her week from the beginning and asking what needs to get done and who is going to help get it done. Then halfway through, touching base again to ensure that both remote and hybrid workers are getting what they need to be successful.
“Make sure to give those projects out across the board,” said Reavis. “If we aren’t thinking about it, it’s going to happen and it’s going to be in our rearview mirror versus in front of us.”
Leaders, who should hold themselves accountable to minimize proximity bias, can also review data and compare metrics of progression between remote and in-office employees.
“This allows organizations the opportunity to assess engagement scores and evaluate employee experiences across remote and in-office and, as a result, begin to develop systems to minimize any inequities,” said Coleman.
Additionally, training can be implemented on how to work inclusively.