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Hybrid working and unconscious bias – the impact on promotion opportunities

Performance Management | Return to the workplace

Posted on: Friday May 07, 2021

A recent study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) shows that two-thirds of UK employers plan to introduce hybrid working in the next 12 months – a way of working where employees work part of their time in the workplace and part remotely.

The hybrid way of working brings about many advantages for both employees and employers. Employees benefit by having greater flexibility over where and when they work, more time to spend prioritising their wellbeing and are able to save money on their commuting and lunch costs.

Employers can see benefits such as increased productivity and employee engagement, a reduction in overheads e.g. through downsizing office space, but also access to wider talent pools – this may be music to the ears of your recruitment team!

Seems like the hybrid way of working is perfect, right?

Hybrid working and career progression – what is the data telling us?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) finds that home-workers were less than half as likely to be promoted compared to their in-office counterparts between 2011 and 2017.

These findings, and previous literature, suggests that home-workers could be at a disadvantage when being considered for a promotion in contrast to office-based staff, which in turn could stall their career progression.

The association between remote working and promotion inequality existed before the pandemic. However, as organisations plan to move to a way of working where a greater proportion of the workforce will be working remotely for at least part of the week, there’s greater urgency to review such inequalities.

You may be asking, “why are remote workers at a disadvantage of being promoted?”

Can we see the answer in ‘visibility bias’?

Managers have had it tough. With the pandemic resulting in an abrupt move to remote working for a large percentage of the population, managers have had less visibility over their employees’ work. Monitoring and assessing performance has been more challenging than ever.

Due to this lack of visibility, managers run the risk of assessing performance based on inputs, for example by the physical amount of time the employee is logged on to their computer, as opposed to the quality of their outputs (and the subsequent outcomes such as organisation revenue and profit and customer satisfaction).

Focusing on inputs alone fails to accurately capture the employee’s performance and development. This could cloud managerial judgement as to whether or not the employee deserves a promotion.

Consider also the misconception between physically seeing someone working, and perceiving them as being harder working than someone they cannot see. The ONS findings actually dispute this misconception - homeworkers worked more hours, were more likely to do unpaid overtime and were more likely to work in the evenings in comparison to in-office workers.

With the hybrid model of working, you could be faced with a scenario whereby managers perceive employees who are in the office more frequently as being more hardworking – and could therefore steer managers to award promotions to those who are in the office.

Another angle to consider is the extent to which ‘out of sight, out of mind’ could occur. In-office workers are likely to get more facetime with managers and decision-makers, providing them with greater opportunities to build working relationships. So when it comes to choosing who gets a promotion, in-office workers who have had more ‘air time’ could be at an advantage compared to their remote counterparts.

So what can you do to prevent or minimise these biases in your organisation when it comes to promotions?

The wonderful world of performance development

Performance development is a future-oriented, employee-led approach where the employee and manager work collaboratively to set realistic performance objectives – with frequent check-ins throughout the year.

So how does this approach to performance development minimise the influence of behavioural biases when it comes to promotions?

Firstly, due to the nature of the collaborative approach to goal setting, both the manager and employee have clear visibility on the performance objectives that the employee is expected to achieve throughout the year.

Managers should therefore have fewer anxieties around the visibility of what their direct reports are doing every hour of every day – instead, there is a shift in focus onto outputs based on the jointly agreed performance objectives.

Frequent check-ins also enable managers to have a greater understanding over their direct reports work, progress and productivity – no matter where they work.

Better still, these frequent check-ins allow managers to get a real time understanding of performance and can pick up underperformance before it manifests.

No employees, despite where they work, are forgotten about and the greater visibility managers have over their direct reports’ performance objectives should squash the misconception that physically seeing someone work means that they are working harder.

What all this means is that all employees, despite their working location, have an equal opportunity to receive a promotion.

A change to your performance management approach can help this huge transition in working styles – get in touch with me if you would like to find out more about our performance development approach at .


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