How to Avoid Bias in a Remote Workplace

How to avoid bias in a remote workplace

People rely on their own judgment in making important decisions. And it’s natural to have personal biases, because everyone has their own unique perception and way of thinking.

The challenge for business owners, then, is not letting these biases get in the way of a productive and positive remote workplace.

In the wake of current events (i.e. COVID-19 and the ensuing global lockdowns), company leaders have implemented a remote workplace for most of their team. But despite the physical distance, it’s still possible to have biases in this work environment, even when you don’t see most of your team members.

The most common example of this is proximity bias. When a workplace includes a combination of office-based and remote staff, a business owner might (wrongly) assume that physically present members are more productive than their remote counterparts.

Maintaining this kind of bias greatly influences the way a business owner acts towards their members, because it can impact the productivity of the whole team.

Since it’s a subconscious way of processing thoughts and perceptions of others, it’s easy to underestimate personal biases and take them for granted. But being self-aware and critical will make you a better person and business leader.

Importance of Bias-Free Remote Workplaces for Business Owners

An unconscious bias happens when internal factors influence the way you act and make decisions. These factors can include your social and educational background, your past experiences, and even your environmental and living conditions.

Some of the most common types of unconscious biases include:

  • Affinity bias: When you show a preference for people who have similar characteristics, hobbies, or interests. This means that you may feel that someone isn’t fit for the role because they don’t have a lot of commonalities with you.
  • Attribution bias: When you rationalise personal successes and failures, while having uninformed assumptions about someone else’s achievements and errors (i.e. either is due to luck or a lack of ability, respectively). This can negatively influence recruitment and performance reviews.
  • Confirmation bias: When you search for evidence that conveniently backs up your opinions, while neglecting important information that contradicts it. Strategic decision-making should involve relevant facts from all sides of the story.
  • Gender bias: When you discriminate team members because of their gender. This includes asking senior-ranking women to take down minutes in meetings over junior-ranking men. It can also include hiring male applicants for certain roles even though female applicants have the same qualifications.
  • Halo and/or horns effect: The halo effect happens when one good aspect about a person affects your overall opinion of them (i.e. you overlook their errors or negative attributes). The horns effect is the opposite, wherein you focus on a person’s one bad quality and fail to see their positive characteristics and achievements.

Aside from having to deal with proximity bias, the remote workplace is affected by these types of unconscious bias, too. And it’s imperative for a business owner to set an example by avoiding these biases to take hold in the workplace.

Many successful remote businesses are proactive in nurturing a fair and positive work culture. Flock — which comprises teams in Boston, Mumbai and Bengaluru — uses a full suite of collaboration tools to encourage open and consistent communication amongst everyone. This increases the whole team’s productivity and reduces the development of remote workplace biases.

Preventing and avoiding biases will motivate the entire team to work for your business’ success. It also encourages collaboration, diversity and loyalty between you and your team members (and even amongst team members themselves).

5 ways a business owner can prevent bias in a remote workplace

As a business leader, it’s important to be objective and fair towards every member in your team. Here are five ways to ensure that your personal biases don’t affect the workplace.

1. Rely on your KPIs, not your assumptions

Have concrete metrics in place before you start conducting performance reviews of your team members. This minimises the tendency of your personal assumptions influencing your decisions in either promoting, demoting, or letting go of people.

Studies show that most performance evaluations are biased because it’s an “open box”, which indicates that the reviews don’t have an objective criteria and instead uses ambiguous and broad questions and indicators that leave a lot to the reviewer’s discretion (or bias, in this case).

In the first place, you need to ensure that you find the right people for your business. You don’t necessarily have to hire people who think exactly like you (which can lead to an affinity bias), but your staff should grow within the culture and values you set in the workplace.

Establishing and communicating your key performance indicators in the beginning can make evaluations more effective and objective when you give feedback to your team members.

2. Check in with your team regularly

Developing a genuine connection with each team member allows you to know them equally and fairly. Regular conversations can give you insight on their individual assignments and their current performance status.

Check-ins can make your staff feel more comfortable in sharing the work challenges they’re facing. Open communication makes it easier to discuss how they can improve and overcome those difficulties.

You need to manage your remote staff properly for your check-ins to be effective. This includes using project management and collaboration tools such as Notion and Slack. This allows you to efficiently organise and review everyone’s workload, and to initiate personal or urgent messages in different platforms. It’s also important to establish non-work interactions so that you create more authentic relationships.

Make sure that you foster a safe and non-judgmental space for you and your staff during these check-ins. This encourages an honest and productive conversation between the both of you.

Here are some of the questions you can ask your staff during a check-in:

  • Are there aspects of your role or current task that aren’t clear?
  • What challenges are you facing? What are some of your achievements (big or small) in the last week?
  • What has communication been like with your team leaders, managers, directors, and/or co-workers?
  • How can we improve our daily communication?
  • What’s one personal goal that the company can help you achieve?

3. Include people who feel isolated

A virtual workplace means different time zones, daily obligations, and circumstances for every team member. And isolation is a more likely issue for remote staff, especially if they’re not used to the culture or if they came from a predominantly office-based environment.

This can prevent you from knowing your team members and how well or poorly they’re performing (which then increases the likelihood of developing personal biases).

Be proactive when reaching out to your staff, particularly those who seem or feel isolated. Establish firm work boundaries, so that your team can enjoy a well-balanced life. Organise online team-building activities to build rapport with them. Be supportive when addressing their concerns or questions. It’s important that everyone still feels included and important even in a remote work environment.

4. Provide development opportunities for team members

As a business leader, it’s important to continue offering opportunities that can further develop your team member’s different skills.

Because of the proximity bias, traditional-thinking business owners may have “out of sight, out of mind” thinking when it comes to remote employees. But everyone desires growth opportunities, no matter their work environment.

Prioritising this is also a great investment for your business. When you offer relevant, competitive development opportunities, it helps retain your talented staff and build their loyalty. It also keeps them engaged with their work, which results in high-quality output that benefits your business in the long run.

5. Challenge your own assumptions

Great business leaders are understanding, positive, and vibrant. While they’re human and imperfect, they shouldn’t be judgmental. If a business owner relies solely on their assumptions and opinions, they become reactive.

Failing to challenge personal assumptions can actually lead to business failures. William Orton, the president of Western Union in 1876, rejected the patent of the telephone because he assumed it lacked commercial possibilities. Meanwhile, Kodak became complacent with their digital photography patents because they assumed smartphones wouldn’t disrupt their business.

Questioning the sources of your assumptions and adjusting your mindset can actually lead to innovation and collaboration. In a remote workplace, a business leader shouldn’t assume that certain employees are either taking on most of the work or aren’t working hard enough.

Every person deserves to be heard and understood without any preconceived notions. This is why it’s essential for business owners to develop critical thinking. It helps them challenge their assumptions that lead to effective and objective decision-making.

Avoiding biases in a remote workplace can be daunting, because it involves a lot of self-awareness and examination. But following these tips will help you develop a positive and productive remote work culture. Book a call if you need guidance in becoming a fairer and less biased business leader.