How to protect hybrid work cultures from proximity bias

Contributed by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of the boutique future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which helps forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities. A best-selling author, his newest book is Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams. We asked Dr. Tsipursky how leaders can address proximity bias in the new normal of hybrid work culture. Here’s what he shared:

Of the many changes accelerated by the pandemic, remote and hybrid work schedules are one that has created ongoing waves of adaptation across businesses worldwide. Employees in the same organization now often operate on vastly different schedules—some working in the office full time, some with hybrid schedules, others fully remote. Differences in work styles and schedules can understandably lead to resentment around flexibility and job performance.

The danger of a sense of resentment building up between “haves” and “have nots” around schedule flexibility is a reality. It calls for a work culture that acknowledges such issues. Savvy leaders recognize that they must address proximity bias as they adapt their work culture to the hybrid and remote future of work.

Leaders who want to seize a competitive advantage in the future of work use research-based best practices to create a culture of “Excellence from Anywhere” to address these concerns. This cultural best practice is based on guidance I helped develop for leaders at 17 major organizations in implementing effective strategies for a work culture fit for the future of work.

Our future is hybrid

Nearly two-thirds of all US workers worked remotely during the pandemic. Moreover, up to three-quarters of surveyed employers intend to keep a mainly hybrid schedule after the pandemic.

Plenty of large companies have already announced a switch to a post-pandemic permanent hybrid model of one to three days of work in the office. Multiple other organizations will let many or all of their remote-working employees work from home permanently.

These decisions match workers’ desires, with surveys showing that a majority of employees want a hybrid or fully remote schedule permanently, even post-pandemic. Thus, organizations have to adapt their work culture to accommodate these needs.

Why have organizations failed to adapt to the future of work?

Leaders often fail to adopt best practices because of dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. These mental blindspots result in poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating options. They render leaders unable to resist following their gut instead of relying on best practices.

One of these biases is called functional fixedness. It refers to the tendency to disregard other more appropriate alternatives when we have a particular perception of proper practices.

Trying to transpose existing ways of collaboration in “office culture” to remote work is a prime example of functional fixedness. That’s why leaders failed to strategically address the problems arising with the abrupt transition to telework.

Another cognitive bias related to functional fixedness is called the not-invented-here syndrome. It’s a leader’s antipathy toward adopting practices not invented within their organization, no matter how useful.

Defeating these cognitive biases requires the use of research-based best practices. It means adopting a hybrid-first model with a minority fully remote. To do so successfully requires creating a new work culture well-suited for the hybrid and remote future of work.

How “Excellence From Anywhere” protects from proximity bias

Some organizations may need some employees to come in to their facility full-time. For example, one of my clients is a high-tech manufacturing company with over 25,000 employees. Many of these employees must be present on the factory floor.

Others may need to come in on a hybrid schedule even if they worked remotely full-time during the pandemic. A case in point: Research and development staff are able to innovate better if they can access equipment in the company’s labs. Some team leaders may want employees to come in one day a week to facilitate team cohesion and collaboration, even if they can perform all of their work remotely. Still other employees may have team leaders who permit them to work remotely full-time.

Such differences over flexibility have the potential to create tension between employees. Addressing these potential cultural divides is vital to prevent a sense of “haves” and “have-nots” from developing.

Leaders can address this by focusing on a shared culture of Excellence From Anywhere. This term refers to a flexible organizational culture that takes into account the nature of an employee’s work and promotes task-based policies, allowing remote work whenever possible.

The Excellence From Anywhere strategy addresses concerns about divides by focusing on deliverables, regardless of where you work. Doing so also involves adopting best practices for hybrid and remote collaboration and innovation.

Boosting such best practices helps integrate employees into a work culture fit for the future of work while fostering good relationships with managers. Research shows these are the most important relationships for employee morale, engagement and retention.

By valuing deliverables, collaboration, and innovation through a shared work culture of Excellence From Anywhere, you can instill in your employees a focus on deliverables. The core idea is to get all of your workforce to pull together to achieve business outcomes: the location doesn’t matter.

This work culture addresses concerns about fairness by reframing the conversation to focus on accomplishing shared goals, rather than the method of achieving them. After all, no one wants their colleagues to have to commute out of spite.

Categories: Best Practices OPERATIONS PEOPLE/STAFF


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