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Does remote working increase unconscious bias?

Inside Small Business, 14 December 2021

When faced with remote work, and dealing with teams, people and projects in a position of physical isolation, we tend to lean on our own predisposed judgements to make decisions. While digging deep into our experience and current knowledge base is, in fact, very normal and very much expected, in remote situations we tend to leave out one crucial factor when it comes to making decisions: Empathy.

Without being in physical proximity of people, we are unable to gain a full picture of their emotions, their workload, their wins and their struggles. It becomes harder to be constantly aware of their potential, and harder to uphold necessary communication processes.

We have seen unconscious bias in remote work situations lead to an increase in bullying complaints, as employees are faced with relying on short bursts of communication and past experiences to form conclusions. With communication being harder to maintain in remote environments, we see many employees feel excluded, spoken over, unfairly critiqued, and often categorised in unwanted stereotypes by others.

How to combat unconscious bias in remote working

1. Remember you and your team are human

When we are physically isolated from people, our empathy and ability to truly understand each other radically drop. For example, keyboard warriors have gotten their name for jumping to conclusions and making statements, claims and quite frankly, rude comments to others from a place of solitude- hidden behind their computer screen. It’s easy to disconnect from people and their emotions and experiences when you don’t have to face them. The same applies in the corporate world. Being physically disconnected from people for long periods of time can decrease our ability to harness empathy for colleagues and increase our reliance on our unconscious biases to make decisions. If a team member is late consistently to virtual meetings, it can become easy to create assumptions, form a bias and unconsciously embed those biases into your decision-making process. Instead, we need to first start with an empathetic approach and have a conversation with the team member to openly and authentically discuss why this is the case. By re-training our approach to creating a conversation and connection, over jumping to a conclusion based on an assumption, we can begin to decrease our unconscious and conscious biases in the workplace.

2. Continuous education to embed new practices

Investing in continual unconscious bias training and workshops may seem redundant, with some workplaces believing that one lot of training should “fix” the problem. Unfortunately, our everyday experiences and encounters, combined with political, economic and environmental factors, are constantly embedding in us new biases, consciously or unconsciously. It’s a known fact that we never stop learning throughout our lives, especially in our professions, so why should we view behavioural training and development in workplaces any differently.

3. Create a hiring process that is equal and diverse

Having a workforce that is diverse, and promotes equal opportunities is key to diversifying thoughts and opinions within an organisation, and is important in combating stereotypes and archaic systems that allow these biases and stereotypes to roll on. Ensure you’re hiring from a greater pool of talent, widely including people from all demographics, experiences and walks of life. Think creatively when hiring and be open to considering potential over perfect.

Unconscious bias has been the unmeasured impact of the COVID crisis. And allowing biases to control or influence decision making will only become a marker for greater issues within your organisation. Empathy is the thread that needs to be weaved through the daily corporate operation, creating an opportunity to take a new approach to your decision making while remotely working.

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