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Meetings Are Not the Way to Tackle Proximity Bias in Hybrid Work

June 02, 2022 Digital Workplace
Mike Prokopeak
By Mike Prokopeak

To meet or not to meet, that is a hybrid work question. And as companies continue to grapple with the changing dynamics of the workplace and whether to return to the office or not, it's become an issue fraught with potential problems.

In an interview with CNBC’s Make It, Javier Soltero, vice president and general manager of Google Workspace, talked about mistakes to avoid when bringing employees back to the office. One is the tendency for leaders to call too many meetings.

To be clear, intentions may be good. Leaders want to mitigate potential proximity bias by strengthening employee engagement and communicating effectively. But what they should do instead, Soltero said, is focus on re-vamping the social contracts or expectations within their organization. 

Meetings Are Not a Solution to Proximity Bias

Proximity bias in a hybrid work model is real and something organizations must learn to recognize and address. Research shows that people look more favorably on the people they see and meet most often.

Ilkka Mäkitalo, CEO and co-founder of Finland-based Howspace, said there are concerns that this bias could lead to pressure to go into the office to avoid being overlooked for promotions or better pay. In turn, this can cause presenteeism, a phenomenon where employees continue to work despite being sick, injured or in a state not conducive to work.

Because of proximity bias, hybrid workplaces may also make workers attempt to demonstrate their commitment to managers who are at the office by coming in excessively or organizing more meetings to be seen.

One solution is setting clear expectations and establishing a culture of trust. This, Mäkitalo said, will motivate employees to function at higher levels and help take the organization to the next level. Whatever the expectations are, Mäkitalo said it's crucial for the leadership team to role model the plan. Managers who claim working remotely is accepted but show up at the office five days a week may be setting the wrong example. 

Related Article: 4 Ways to Prevent and Overcome the Zoom Ceiling

What Is the Value of Meetings?

The issue with meetings isn't isolated to hybrid or remote workplaces. It raises the question as to the validity of meetings in general. According to Archie Payne, co-founder and president of San Diego, Calif.-based CalTek Staffing, unnecessary meetings are a huge productivity killer for workers in all models. 

In remote environments, many company leaders try to use extra meetings in lieu of one-on-one attention or in an attempt to replicate the in-office work experience. But in both of those cases, Payne said meetings are a poor substitute.  

“The rule of thumb I use when deciding who needs to attend a meeting — or whether to have one in the first place — is to ask, 'What will be gained with a face-to-face discussion that can’t be accomplished on other communication platforms?'" he said. "If there are people on the invite list who are solely there to listen and not to contribute, having them attend the meeting is not the best use of their time. It also does nothing to give them more 'face time' with colleagues and leadership if they are not going to be an active part of the conversation."

In his view, this issue becomes prevalent when companies do not fully embrace the remote or hybrid work models and instead attempt to replicate the in-office environment they believe is better. An over-emphasis on meetings, Payne said, stems from the belief that face-to-face conversations are superior to other forms of communication, and that perception stems from traditional in-office work environments.

In hybrid and remote workplaces, meetings are best used for collaboration, brainstorming and other discussions where it helps to have a room of voices organically bouncing ideas back and forth. “If the meeting in question doesn’t match those criteria, it’s likely other forms of communication can be equally effective and will often be a better use of your employees’ time,” he said.

Related Article: Why Asynchronous Videos Are Better Than Video Meetings

A Managers' Checklist for Collaboration

The idea of hybrid work is to provide a balance that is inclusive of all work styles so that employees can choose their preferred workspace where they can do their best work. For this model to work as intended, managers must play a key role.

In addition to minimizing unnecessary meetings, here are five other action items for managers to consider:

  • Plan and manage time effectively: Asynchronous work allows for greater flexibility, but it is still important for employees to manage their time effectively. Build a culture around making asynchronous work as important for your team.
  • Make expectations clear: Make sure you and your team members are clear about goals, priorities and deadlines.
  • Communicate early and often: Be deliberate with communication channels and communicate your schedule and preferences early. Managers should never assume that their distributed team members are available just because they are at home.
  • Establish a culture of feedback and recognition: Having an open-door policy in a hybrid workplace means welcoming employee feedback whenever an issue arises. Positive feedback is as equally important and should be given freely to encourage recognition in times of success.
  • Encourage healthy work-life boundaries: Healthy work-life boundaries can help reduce stress and the risk of burnout, avoid conflict and help enhance well-being and productivity.

“The future of work involves remote workers, hybrid work and asynchronous work, and workplace culture must reflect that trend," said Mäkitalo. “Give employees the freedom to structure their work in a way that best suits them (and the world around them) by revising your asynchronous remote work policy." 

Related Article: Are Working Hours Outdated?

Mitigating the Risk of Employee Burnout

As hybrid work potentially becomes “the new normal,” leaders need to carefully navigate their employees' schedules and ensure that after meetings, there is still time left in the day to actually do the work they were assigned.

Hellene Garcia, head of commercials at Neat, which builds video meeting devices for Microsoft and Zoom, said a heavy reliance on teleconferencing and virtual meetings, which are typical with a hybrid workforce, carries a risk of employee burnout, as work-life balance becomes blurrier for team members whose back-to-back meetings never seem to end.

“Tactically, it’s a good idea to look for ways to offer infrastructure to support in-person meetings, including ways for teams to distribute information asynchronously,” she said. This includes internal knowledge bases, recorded videos and even modern internal chat collaboration tools that offer the ability to archive important conversations that team members can access on demand.

She said it's essential to mitigate the burden of endless Zoom meetings by being mindful of the team’s general well-being and time-off schedule.

"Managers should have a plan and a team structure that not only allows for flexibility for team members across different time zones but also lets people periodically take time off to recharge," she said.

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