Tackling Unconscious Bias in the Virtual Workplace

By Amit Walia, Chief Revenue Officer, Compodium

We’ve become fully accustomed to television news interviews taking place via video conference link these days. As a medium it is an effective way to garner expert opinion and add colour to a news item, whilst respecting COVID-19 safety guidance.  Increasingly for some of these interviewees the use of video is now serving an additional purpose – self-promotion. 

I’m not referring to them using the interview as a platform to showcase their expertise. That’s a given. This is more subtle. Often the most prominent piece of furniture in the background is a bookshelf, and there, pride of place in plain view of the camera is the interviewee’s own latest book – or series of books in some cases. 

A shameful plug or brilliant marketing? You decide. But it got me thinking. Has this changed the way I feel about this person? Do I respect them more, or less? Am I even aware that I have a view – one way or the other?

This notion is known as unconscious bias. Everyone has unconscious biases. The brain receives information all the time from our own experiences and what we read, hear or see in the media and from others. The brain uses shortcuts to speed up decision making and unconscious bias is a by-product.  

The question of bias is at its heart a complex and difficult one. Regardless of how open-minded we claim to be, the truth is a combination of human nature, society and culture produce stereotyping and prejudices that inform how we behave towards, or think about, one another.

Unconscious bias in the workplace

Organisations are aware that unconscious bias exists. An Internet search quickly reveals pages of information and advice, including this one from Acas, an independent public body that aims to improve workplace relationships. You can even take an online test to become more aware of your own biases.

Unconscious bias can determine many choices that we make in our everyday work, from the way we allocate tasks to how we manage challenging situations. It can creep into even the most inclusive teams, especially during periods of uncertainty or increased stress like we’re facing now.

For many of us the workplace has shifted to our homes – at least for the short-term, and the use of video conferencing skyrocketed. Business in America, for example, hosts 11 million video conferencing calls a day. These collaboration platforms have proved invaluable enabling many businesses to carry on ‘as normal’ – albeit virtually. An unforeseen impact of this is that unconscious bias has now crept into our virtual working lives.

In the physical world, we 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. 

It’s possible 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. Seeing where our colleagues live, meeting their pets, hearing their children interrupt, noticing a well-stocked garden. All of these things contribute to the decisions that someone makes about us on a video call. Most of these are subconscious.

A great example of this comes via The Guardian newspaper earlier this year. It ran an article about the hosting of TV news at home. The article highlighted how broadcasters were conscious of being judged by their décor. The presenters interviewed were aware that viewers would be scrutinising the backdrop of their homes, during the broadcast, and commenting on the wallpaper and soft furnishings. Many presenters were searching out the most innocuous space in their houses, as a result, and removing items on show in order not to give too much personal information away or provide a platform from which to be judged.

It’s not all bad!

The good news is that many biases can actually be eliminated by video conferencing. Removing the physical office space actually levels the playing field. No-one knows if your physical office is a suite with a dual aspect floor to ceiling windows or a small cupboard under the stairs. Video conferencing gives us the ability to ‘control’ what others see. Mostly we’re all working at our dining tables, or in home offices with a cream-coloured wall. One person’s cream-coloured wall is as good as anyone else’s. This removes a huge potential for bias in perception. From the frame of our laptop screens, we’re also laid bare as people with homes and lives outside of work. It makes us all seem a little bit more human and little less intimidating.

Another key way that videoconferencing can eliminate bias is that it offers simple and convenient opportunities to challenge confirmation bias. Meetings can be paused and broken up into private chat rooms at the touch of a button. Smaller chat rooms can provide spaces to develop alternative ideas, counter information, or evidence to consider. This does not happen enough during in-person meetings.

Alternatively, the host can invite participants to type suggestions or objections in the Chat function during the meeting. These messages can be sent only to the host, rather than to the whole group. The host can then voice those important ideas anonymously, so the participant does not need to worry about interrupting a meeting or voicing a “risky” idea. These “risky” ideas may be innovative solutions that so often go unheard. 

The virtual workplace has humanised us all

Unfortunately unconscious bias is everywhere 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.

%d bloggers like this: