You have an important assignment that must be completed tomorrow and two people on staff who are ideally suited to handle it. Because the office is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both are working from home. One is single and the other has two school-aged children at home.
Who will get the opportunity to shine? If you immediately chose the single person without giving the matter serious consideration, then you may be demonstrating unconscious bias.
We all have unrecognized stereotypes—influenced by our surroundings, our upbringings, and those around us—that lead us to form instinctive judgments about others. Left unchecked, 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.
Leaders need to be aware that when teams are working from home and conducting routine business through calls and virtual meetings, they need to be especially alert to bias and avoid making assumptions about their team members. Hearing a child in the background or seeing a pet stroll on camera should have no influence on the business at hand. It also helps to remember that nuance and body language don’t necessarily translate well via video conference.
Now, more than ever, leaders need to:
Challenge your own assumptions. Don’t assume that certain team members are taking on most of the domestic duties and caring responsibilities in their households. Or that some team members feel less stress. Every person and situation deserve to be understood without preconceived notions of what you may consider “typical.”
Separate bias from assignment, promotion, or compensation outcomes. Be careful to provide opportunities fairly, and avoid relying exclusively on your inner network or team members who are most accessible to you. Take time to appreciate what your team members are capable of alongside their other responsibilities, and ensure that your perception of the impact of their caregiving responsibilities do not unduly influence assignment opportunities.
Check in.Hold regular conversations with each team member to find out how assignments are unfolding and whether there have been any changes to individual circumstances. During these and all interactions, demonstrate empathy and understanding so that team members feel comfortable discussing any challenges.
Include people who may feel isolated.Arrange team calls for times that accommodate as many team members as possible and try to avoid times when family circumstances are most likely to disrupt work schedules.
Set expectations and boundaries with clear and transparent guidelines for communicating and meeting deadlines. Have individual discussions with all team members about when and where they will work, what support they need and the kinds of assignments they feel they can manage in the current environment. Try to focus on output and quality as the primary metrics of success, rather than hours or availability.
Prioritize creative ways to provide continued development opportunities. Create opportunities for your team to continue to learn and grow virtually, and work with them to identify online training and development opportunities that can develop their skills.
Unconscious bias isn’t unique to our pandemic-shaped world. We should always try to recognize and avoid any prejudices. But working virtually brings different challenges—and potentially reveals new, underlying assumptions that can damage the effective functioning of your team. Being cognizant about unconscious bias can make us more thoughtful about our interactions and the opportunities we offer to our people.
Regardless of the circumstances, everyone deserves a chance to shine.