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How leaders can solve the ‘face time’ problem in an era of hybrid and remote work

February 9, 2022, 5:01 PM UTC
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"Addressing potential cultural divides around remote and hybrid work is vital to prevent a sense of 'haves' and 'have-nots' from developing," writes Gleb Tsipursky.
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January Slack survey of over 10,000 knowledge workers and their leaders shows that the top concern for executives about hybrid and remote work is “proximity bias.” In summary, 41% feel worried about the negative impact on work culture from the prospect of inequality among office-centric, hybrid, and fully remote employees.

As different workers make varying choices about how much time to spend in the office, their concerns range from decreased career mobility for those who spend less face time with their supervisor, to resentment building up against the staff who have the most flexibility in where to work. 

Leaders who want to seize a competitive advantage in the future of work need to use research-based best practices by creating a culture of “Excellence from Anywhere” to address these concerns. This cultural best practice is based on guidance for leaders at 17 pioneering organizations that I helped guide in developing and implementing effective methods for a company culture fit for the future of work. 

The ‘Excellence from Anywhere’ strategy

Why haven’t leaders addressed the obvious problem of proximity bias? Any reasonable external observer could predict the issues arising from differences in time spent in the office.

Unfortunately, leaders often fail to see the clear threat in front of their noses. You might have heard of black swans: low-probability, high-impact threats. Well, the opposite kind of threats are called gray rhinos: obvious dangers that we fail to see because of our mental blind spots. The scientific name for these blind spots is cognitive biases, which have caused leaders to resist best practices in transitioning to a hybrid-first model.

Many organizations may need some employees to come in full-time. For example, one of my clients is a high-tech manufacturing company with over 25,000 employees. It needs many employees to be on the factory floor.

Others at the same company need to come in on a hybrid schedule: Some R&D staff, for example, innovate better if they access equipment in the labs. Some others may have team leaders that want them to come in once a week to facilitate team cohesion, even if they can do all their work remotely. And still other employees have team leaders that permit them to do full-time remote work.

Such differences over flexibility have the potential to create tension among employees. Addressing these potential cultural divides is vital to prevent a sense of “haves” and “have-nots” from developing, as well as pre-empting career-limiting face-time differences with supervisors.

Leaders can address this by focusing on a shared culture of Excellence from Anywhere, as we did at the company discussed above. This term refers to a flexible organizational culture that takes into account the nature of an employee’s work and promotes task-based policies, allowing remote work whenever possible.

Addressing proximity bias

The Excellence from Anywhere strategy addresses concerns about divides by focusing on deliverables, regardless of where you work. Doing so also involves adopting best practices for hybrid and remote collaboration and innovation

By valuing deliverables, collaboration, and innovation through a focus on a shared work culture of Excellence from Anywhere, you can instill in your employees a focus on deliverables. The core idea is to get all of your workforce to pull together to achieve business outcomes: The location doesn’t matter.

This work culture addresses concerns about fairness by reframing the conversation to focus on accomplishing shared goals, rather than the method of doing so. After all, no one wants their colleagues to have to commute out of spite.

But what about face time with the boss? To address this problem necessitates shifting from the traditional, high-stakes, large-scale quarterly or even annual performance evaluations to much more frequent weekly or biweekly, low-stakes, brief performance evaluations in the form or one-on-one check-ins.

Supervisees agree on three to five weekly or biweekly performance goals with their supervisor. Then, 72 hours before their check-in meeting, they send a brief report to their boss (ideally well under a page) of how they did on these goals, what challenges they faced and how they overcame them, a quantitative self-evaluation, and proposed goals for next week. Twenty-four hours before the meeting, the supervisor responds in a paragraph-long response with their initial impressions of the report. 

At the one-on-one, the supervisor coaches the supervisee on how to solve challenges better, agrees or revises the supervisee’s goals for next time, and affirms or revises the performance evaluation. That performance evaluation gets fed into a constant performance and promotion review system, which can replace or complement a more thorough annual evaluation.

This type of brief and frequent performance evaluation meeting mitigates concerns about face time, since all get at least some personalized attention from their team leader. But more importantly, it addresses underlying concerns about career mobility by giving all staff a clear indication of where they stand at all times. After all, it’s hard to tell how much any employee should worry about not being able to chat by the watercooler with their boss. Knowing exactly where they stand is the key concern for employees, and they can take proactive action if they see their standing suffer.

Such best practices help integrate employees into a work culture fit for the future of work ,while fostering good relationships with managers. Research shows supervisor-supervisee relationships are the most critical ones for employee morale, engagement, and retention, so important in this time of the Great Resignation.

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The Excellence from Anywhere approach reframes the conversation over career standing and workplace flexibility to help everyone focus on pulling together to achieve shared business objectives—prioritizing deliverables rather than where and how you work through research-based best practices. It also involves giving all employees personalized face time with the boss and a constant knowledge of where they stand at all times, alleviating career mobility concerns. 

 Gleb Tsipursky is a thought leader in cognitive bias risk management and the future of work, CEO of future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, and the author of several books, including Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.

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