How has remote work helped us confront unconscious bias?
By Sion Lewis, Vice President of EMEA at LogMeIn
As the pandemic upended our lives, many of us have become reliant on video calls over the last few months. Videoconferencing providers have noted remarkable success, while virtual pub quizzes and happy hours became an accepted pastime overnight. Whether it’s been to facilitate continuity or keep lines of communications open, it’s safe to say the software has been a considerable lifeline for many of us under current circumstances.
Our reliance on video calls shows no signs of slowing down. Despite workplaces being exempt from recent lockdown measures, many businesses are continuing to support flexible work for the bulk of their employees.
But for all its disruption, the pandemic hasn’t been the only source of turbulence this year. Summer brought conversations around racial equality, diversity and inclusion to the forefront – how have these been impacted by the shift towards a remote lifestyle?
Unconscious bias back in vogue
With much of the strive and upheaval of this summer, a new unconscious bias has emerged. Organisations were praised or plundered based on responses to ongoing political and racial discussions, working groups were formed, and a renewed focus was put on diversity at every level of business.
We did this all remotely. For many of us it was restricted to a small rectangle sitting at our kitchen table, living room or in our makeshift office. It was a screen filled with tiny camera images that our colleagues occupied to work through hard discussions. But I doubt any of us took a step back to think about how this format of the discussion impacted unconscious bias.
The office used to be an equaliser. It was professional and separate from life outside of work. But with mass remote working becoming the norm we are forced to invite colleagues into our homes. So, this begs the question, has our bias evolved?
We used to focus our efforts to combat unconscious bias on first impressions, handshakes, eye contact, clothing choices. But much of this has now been taken away. Instead replaced with images from the shoulders up without physical interaction and limited body language to read. However, it could be argued that video conferencing has actually opened up new avenues for unconscious bias as we showcase more of our personal life to those we work with.
Family pictures, furniture choices, style preferences – they all contribute to the decisions that someone makes about us on a video call. Most of these are subconscious.
But what if it was actually the opposite? What if video conferencing actually made the playing field more equal?
An equaliser of sorts
While doing a video call from your dining room table might feel like it adds extra opportunities for bias, it could also be viewed as taking them away. One beige wall in the CEO’s house is no different from a beige wall in the home of new university graduate. You are no longer walking into an intimidating office; you are being invited into the home of a colleague.
While the removal of the office might have been anticipated to create more inequality within the workforce, it has actually taken away some of what the office environment provides. Everyone is at home. Everyone has family or pets or deliveries that might unexpectedly join a call – no matter how senior or professional you are, nobody is immune to this situation.
This shared experience could actually be a trigger to relieve some of the unconscious bias we still hold onto in the office.
Empowering a compassionate workforce
Another unexpected side effect of our working world being on video calls is the outpouring of compassion we have seen for each other.
When you work in an office, to an extent, you are expected to leave the outside world at the door. You take on your professional persona. But when your professional world and private world collide in the way they have done this year, that is almost impossible.
Even if you were used to working remotely before the pandemic, it is unlikely that you were used to working remotely with kids and spouses and elderly parents around you as well. You probably weren’t used to scheduling times for meetings in your home office around the other people who needed it or sharing internet bandwidth with children doing online coursework or teenagers wanting to facetime their friends.
While every one of our individual situations has differed, each has had its own unique challenges. Colleagues, prospects and customers have all recognised this, and the knock-on effect has seen any bias left at the virtual door – after all, we’re only human and everyone is bound to have an unexpected distraction come up at one point or another.
The likelihood is unconscious bias is here to stay, and the shift to a flexible working culture is unlikely to see this change. That said, the uptake of videoconferencing can help prevent the problem getting any worse. Acting as the great neutraliser, the virtual workplace has humanised us all, and will ultimately go far in the fight against unconscious bias.
Sion Lewis is Vice President of EMEA at LogMeIn. As a business leader with a wealth of experience, Sion is a bold, fast decision maker. Furthermore, he brings a combination of entrepreneurial flair and pragmatism to his work. At LogMeIn, Sion works to drive consistent and repeatable double-digit growth in EMEA.