Hybrid work brings new biases to the fore

Hybrid working has exploded and its impact on how people are led and managed will be tremendous, both positively and negatively. Whereas some leaders have embraced the changes with open arms and have adapted, others seem ill-equipped to inspire and engage in a virtual world they never trained for. 

Human biases, rather than dissolving, are in danger of going unchecked and becoming rampant if action is not taken
to raise awareness and focus on conscious inclusion

There are a multitude of biases that may be accentuated by increased remote work such as availability bias, which gives greater importance to more memorable events in one’s experience. Individuals who more frequently meet up face to face with their line manager or colleagues will find it easier to build rapport and build relationships and no doubt be remembered with greater detail and impact. 

No amount of Zoom time is going to replace the warmth and connection experienced when you can look each other in the eyes, respond to non-verbal body language and react to visual cues.

For most of us, not only is this impossible to replicate virtually in the best of times, but broadband issues continue to interrupt conversations mid-flow, as well as other distractions such as cats, dogs and children bursting through the doors during important board meetings or client presentations. Although these interjections were charming and delightful in the beginning, more than a year on, the novelty factor has waned and the human need for deeper personal connection face to face seems to be getting stronger. 

This advantage face-to-face connection may have over predominantly digital relationships is something I like to call the F2F v Digital divide. It is important for organisations to be aware of the risks of this divide and the biases that may get exasperated because of it. By being conscious of bias, organisations can begin to move towards conscious inclusion with clarity. 

Let’s face it, unconscious bias training has a bad reputation, not because it’s a bad idea, but because of how it has been used. A lot of organisations in the last decade did ‘sheep dip’ unconscious bias training and believed their work was done. It was almost used as an excuse, a tick in the box to say ‘we did something’ without considering the concept as part of a long-term strategy. 

What I would recommend is to use the concept of bias as part of a strategic programme of learning which compels individuals to take tangible action towards making an impact rather than stopping at awareness. A potential approach leaders and managers can use is ‘the cognizance process’. I believe there are five steps which can help any individual, leader or team move to a place of greater inclusivity.

The first step is to identify bias. Name the key biases you have e.g. assumptions, judgments and stereotypes about yourself and others. How strongly do you hold on to these beliefs?

Second, understand the origin. What are these key biases based on? In other words is this evidence from the past versus perception? When have these biases helped you or hindered you?

Next, challenge and replace. Which biases have led you to exclude or treat others unfairly? What new beliefs can you replace the bias with that are more inclusive?

Then, raise cognizance. Having become more aware of your biases, how do you feel about them now? What does this teach you about yourself and the type of leader you want to be?

And finally, take the step to be consciously inclusive. What tangible actions can you take because of this exercise? What experiences, individuals and ideas do you need to engage with to become more inclusive?

Leaders, to be better prepared for the challenges and benefits hybrid working brings will need to be open-minded, willing to be introspective and change the way they lead. The rules of creating team engagement and a culture of belonging need to be drastically upgraded. 

The pandemic has foreshortened the tech revolution. In 10 months we experienced a digital adoption process that ought to have taken 10 years. My hope is we can say the same for leadership practice when we look back on this time.  


Dev Modi is a chartered organisational psychologist and partner at Equiida


This piece appears in the May/June 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe now to get all the latest issues delivered to your desk.