Make the Most of Virtual Meetings by Learning to Reduce Your ‘Distance Bias’


Think back to a conference call during the olden, “normal” times when the leader of the call in-room totally forgot who was on the phone, and thus their opinions and ideas didn’t come to the fore. (And, let’s be honest, since they feel disconnected, there’s a good chance they’re scrolling the Internet, not at all related to work, on mute.)

This is when “out of sight” truly does mean “out of mind,” and there’s a name for it: distance bias. It’s when we prefer people or things closer in space or time than what’s farther away. Like many other cognitive biases, distance bias enables us to make decisions faster, but at the expense of getting the full picture.

Organizations have long had this problem with remote workers and contractors: While it’s great to hire them and can diversify opinions and expand your talent pool, their sheer lack of physical presence can often reduce their impact. But now many knowledge workers are remote, so there’s an opportunity here.

With U.S. cases spiking and organizations pushing back initially-set return dates, the most likely situation is that many knowledge workers won’t be returning to an in-office situation for most of 2020. When they return, it will probably be under a “hybrid model” mixing teams in-office and remotely.

We already knew some of the biases baked into telework, including distance bias, so now could be our chance to adjust these biases. That way, when the hybrid model does start scaling, we’ll be ready with a less bias-laden approach to team meetings involving at least a slice of remote workers.

What should we be doing while most are remote?

We’re not necessarily advising leaders to start calling people out at random, although some cultures do allow for it. Instead, we’d like to propose a few ways leaders can shift their approach:

More pre-work for meetings: Have the owner of the meeting create a memo or document explaining the purpose of the meeting and the goals/action items. Make it a shared document so that people can leave thoughts beforehand, and then address those thoughts in the back-half of the actual meeting. It’ll remind people, Oh hey, Kathy is in this meeting, and help minimize their bias. Not to mention, when people are prepared, the quality of the meeting is better.

“Farthest Person First:” Ask for feedback on the point of the meeting and goals from the farthest person (away from HQ/core) first. Any other initial weigh-ins or opinion solicitations can be done in reverse mileage from HQ, to avoid distance bias. When you return to in-office or hybrid, keep this model going.

For the in-person participants, use a white board to list who is on the phone/video component of the call: Sounds basic, and it is, but you’ve definitely sat in meetings and thought 35 minutes in, “Oh, Craig is on this call?”

Roll with us: We have solutions on mitigating bias and creating more collaborative, creative, connected teams. Both go directly into helping people feel more included and valued, both traits to foster in the new hybrid work model.


Authors: Dr. David Rock , Ted Bauer


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