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4 Ways to Prevent and Overcome the Zoom Ceiling

March 09, 2022 Collaboration and Productivity
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

The option to work remotely is a popular choice for many employees. It provides more flexibility and greater work-life balance, among some of the more notable benefits.

But as offices re-open and companies adopt a more hybrid approach, there's an increased risk of unequal treatment between on-site and remote employees — what's become known as proximity bias.

For workers who opt to go fully remote, assuming that's a choice, they have to grapple with a related challenge: the Zoom ceiling.

What Is the Zoom Ceiling?

The Zoom ceiling takes its inspiration from the metaphor of the glass ceiling, a term first popularized to describe the invisible but impenetrable barriers that keep high achieving women from rising to top of the corporate hierarchy. It's since been applied more broadly to describe career advancement challenges for other marginalized groups.

With many meetings now taking place via Zoom and other video conferencing tools, some workplace analysts have begun to talk about the Zoom ceiling, a related phenomenon that affects remote employees — in other words, those who are most likely to use Zoom for business. The problem can be particularly acute for women who opt to work at home to care for children and find themselves unwittingly shunted onto the slow-moving "Mommy track." 

The idea is that remote workers are more likely to be passed over for promotions and other career advancement opportunities compared to their in-office peers. The rationale is simple and somewhat based on the adage "out of sight, out of mind." That is, remote workers often miss out on the chances to have impromptu conversations with managers throughout the work day.

Water cooler conversations also don't happen for individuals working from home, which can cause managers — and even colleagues — to forget about them. Gradually, if an effort isn't made to include remote workers fully, in-office employees can become the first and only candidates considered for promotions or high profile projects. 

Related Article: Does Your Company Have Proximity Bias?

4 Ways to Break the Zoom Ceiling

While this bias is often unintentional, there are things leaders and workers can both do to ensure their organization either breaks the Zoom ceiling or prevents it from forming in the first place. 

1. Engage Workers Equally

Making a conscientious effort to treat employees equally, regardless of location, is critical for leaders and managers. Every employee should be regarded as an equal member of the team. But there are additional challenges remote workers face in making their voices heard.

“It’s hard to speak up when you're online, especially if there’s a lively discussion in the room," said Elena Pundjeva, marketing director at remote software company OfficeRnD. "Making sure people who are online are included is extremely important."

To remedy this, the person leading the meeting should carve out regular intervals to ask those joining remotely if they have any questions or comments that contribute to the discussion. Ensuring everyone has had a chance to speak is important in a hybrid setting.

2. Have One-on-one Meetings

One-on-one annual performance evaluations have long been a standard in corporate America, but new ways of working may call for a change in the process. Meeting with remote employees on a more frequent basis, such as every two weeks, can yield benefits for everyone involved.

One one hand, it enables managers to check in on employees to make sure they have what they need and are not showing signs of burnout or disengagement. On the other, it provides remote workers a chance to showcase their accomplishments and discuss upcoming projects and developments. 

Related Article: Accelerate Leadership Development With a Fresh Take on Coaching

3. Leverage Project Management Tools

Feedback is essential to making sure that workers, remote or on location, have everything they need to complete their tasks. With a remote workforce, however, it's even more important to leverage the right project management tools to ensure seamless and hiccup-less collaboration across the organization.

“Project management platforms allow managers to provide real feedback to workers," said Yauhen Zaremba, director of demand generation at software company Pandadoc. "Workers can learn through trial and error, and it can often be a better learning tool than through virtual video chats.”

Project management tools also enable managers and leaders to connect with employees much more regularly than they would if they waited to have a video call, providing feedback as needed, in real time. This is particularly valuable when the workforce is distributed across different time zones.

4. Make Time for Self Reflection

While managers can do things to ensure that remote workers aren’t forgotten, remote workers also have to shoulder some responsibility if they want to be successful. Kimberly Harris, people operations manager at San Francisco-based Poll Everywhere, said clear communication is crucial on both sides.

“Build in your own cadence for when you broach those growth conversations if your manager isn’t already doing so,” she said. Doing so ensures workers aren't waiting on a manager to consider them for a promotion but instead taking an active role in their career. 

Related Article: Career Development in the Remote or Hybrid Workplace

How to Prevent the Zoom Ceiling

Even for organizations that have not experienced proximity bias or a Zoom ceiling, there are ways to serve remote workers better to avoid issues down the road. Companies that intend to keep a remote workforce — even partial — should ensure they have some key processes in place, including:

Have a Remote Advocate

This could be as big as appointing a corporate head of remote work, or designating a team-based advocate for workers who aren't in the office. For example, meeting in a hybrid environment must be effective for everyone. This means having clear audio and facilitating participation from remote workers. One way to do this is by having a remote advocate.

“Assigning a ‘remote advocate’ in each meeting where someone logs in virtually to make sure audio and visual cues are adequate demonstrates a great ethic of care,” said Harris. 

Encourage Discussion of Local Issues

Leaders should open the lines of communication with remote workers about issues going on in their locale that may affect them. This could mean time zone changes due to daylight savings, power outages, social events, inclement weather and other potential disturbances that could impact their availability and wellbeing. Being aware of these situations may also mean pushing meeting times to accommodate everyone. 

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