Hybrid working risk to career development, report shows

Out-Law News | 19 Oct 2021 | 8:30 am |

Helen Corden tells HRNews how ‘proximity bias’ negatively impacts remote workers


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  • Transcript

    Hybrid working is taking off but the management of it is a big concern for UK employees. A new report shows more than half of employees are concerned they could face discrimination because of the way the hybrid model operates in practice, treating people differently depending on where they work, some at home, others in the workplace. 

    This is ‘The Poly Evolution of the Workplace Report’ which surveyed 2,003 hybrid workers to understand attitudes to hybrid working in the UK. 46% said they were worried that working remotely could impact their career development and progression. 54% said they were concerned they would miss out on ad hoc learning and development opportunities, including learning from peers and seniors, while working from home.
    People Management reports on this and quotes Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR, who says the figures were not surprising and underlined how much work still needed to be done in this area. He says the emphasis should be placed on managers as they can help teams to agree on new ways of working. To that end, he says HR has a responsibility to train line managers on what they need to notice and pick up on when leading remote and hybrid teams.

    We agree with that and it’s one of the points made by Helen Corden in her article for Outlaw: ‘Hybrid work poses proximity bias challenge for managers.’ She says managers not only need to put in place procedures to make the return to the office as streamlined as possible, they also need to grapple with the issue of ensuring that those who return to the office on a more frequent basis are not treated more favourably. She says there is an unconscious tendency to favour those who we see or work closely with on a regular basis, to the detriment of those who work permanently or more frequently from home – what she calls the ‘proximity bias’. She says as more organisations adopt a more flexible approach to home working following the pandemic, they need to be more alive to the challenges this brings.

    So let’s hear more about those challenges and what HR can do to help. Helen Corden joined my by video-link from Birmingham to discuss the issue. I started by asking Helen what can be done on a practical level to minimise the risk of proximity bias:

    Helen Corden: “There are a number of ways that proximity bias can be minimised. I think organisations should think of it in terms of meetings, workload and culture. So just thinking about meetings to begin with. Depending upon the content of the meeting, it may be possible to hold a hybrid meeting where some people are attending the meeting in person, and some people are attending the meeting virtually. If that is the case, then to minimise any proximity bias within the meeting you really need to have a strong chairperson to make sure that everybody is included. Now, if the meeting is relatively straightforward, and there's a clear agenda, then obviously that's a lot easier to do. For those meetings which are, perhaps, going to be more creative, more discursive, then the chair of the meeting really needs to be taking control and making sure that those people who are attending virtually are included because it's very easy for conversations to take place across the table and for people within the meeting to dominate those conversations and that can lead to people who are attending virtually to switch off very easily and by the time - maybe 10, 15, 20 minutes into the meeting - they're asked for their opinion, it's already too late, they've lost the train of thought because they haven't been able to participate. So really, with hybrid meetings you need a strong chair and making sure that everybody is included.”

    Joe Glavina: “You mentioned the importance of culture as a means of addressing proximity bias, Helen.”

    Helen Corden: “What you don't want to do is create any sort of divide amongst the team. So again, it's looking at ways that you can make sure that the team is connected, making sure that managers are holding regular conversations with team members, both those who are in the office and those from home. That may, again, need a more structured approach rather than quick conversations when making coffee, for example, managers need to maybe think about diarising more regular catch ups, especially with those who are working from home more frequently.”

    Joe Glavina: “What if this is not addressed properly by employers Helen? Is it a serious issue?”

    Helen Corden: “I think if it's not addressed and not done properly, then it could turn into a serious issue. So for example, I've already mentioned the cultural issues. You don't want to be creating a divide a divisive workforce, which this could lead to, but also, it could result in claims for discrimination, for example. So if it's the case that more women in the teamwork from home than men, and they're not being adequately supported or allocated work appropriately, you may find that claims of sex discrimination arise because they may say that the men in the office are being favoured over them.”

    That report into hybrid working is ‘The Poly Evolution of the Workplace report’. It provides analysis on the findings of a survey of more than 7,000 hybrid workers from the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Poland and the United Arab Emirates. If you would like to read it for yourself you can – we’ve put a link to it in the transcript of this programme.

    - Link to ‘The Poly Evolution of the Workplace report’