When we think about remote and hybrid teams, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. First of all, everything that negatively impacts a traditional team can cause havoc. Things like a lack of alignment, or micromanagement, or unclear objectives create problems no matter where people work. But there's one factor that's lethal for remote teams that usually isn't a problem when everyone is in the same place. That invisible killer is exclusion.
The reason exclusion is a problem for remote teams is that it's most often unintentional, but the results can be damaging to employee engagement as well as negatively impacting the quality of your team's brainstorming and collaboration.
How we unintentionally exclude others on remote teams
There are lots of ways we exclude team members from our discussions and activities:
- You need to pick someone's brain, so you talk to the people in the office with you. I mean, why include the new girl because she probably doesn't have much to add? Right?
- As a leader, you have to get news to everyone. Since there is a big group in the office, you call them together, and have a discussion. You'll get to the one or two remote people next time you have their one on one.
- You need a couple of people to work on a project, so you talk to the first couple of people who come to mind. Most often those will be people you already have a relationship with. You know the quality of their work, and there's probably a history with them that will make doing the job easy. You didn't intentionally decide NOT to invite the person who lives in Denver. You just didn't think to invite them.
- You need to delegate a project, and it will require some supervision. Alice is walking across the office and you think, "She'd be great for this job." But is there someone on your team working away from the office who could do it just as well or benefit more from the experience? It just didn't cross your mind.
In all of the examples above, the exclusion is largely unintentional. We don't want to keep people out of conversations, or not benefit from their contributions, we just didn't think to include them.
Becoming aware of our biases
The most common problem is proximity bias. We get visual cues—hey, I'll bet Bob knows the answer to this—by seeing bob a couple of desks away. When it comes to working apart from your peers, it's often "out of sight and out of mind."
There's also a kind of social bias that is natural but can make it hard to be truly inclusive. When something needs to happen (especially if time is of the essence), we usually think first of the people we already know, like and trust. If you are going to spend hours brainstorming, do you want to do it with the new hire you have no history with, or Rajesh, who you've known forever?
Understanding why we leave people out is fine, but we need to be aware that it's happening. When people aren't included, it can stir up all kinds of resentment and trust issues. Onboarding new hires can be extremely slow and difficult, especially if they aren't brought into meaningful work and interactions as soon as possible.
What if you are on the outside looking in?
And, if you are the person being excluded, what are you doing about it? Remote work requires a high degree of proactivity. You can sit and pout about not being asked to participate (and it's natural!) or you can volunteer. Step up and say something. Remember, the odds are people aren't excluding you intentionally. But because you aren't physically close, and they don't have the same social connections to you they have to others, they literally aren't thinking about you at all… until they have a good reason.
Inclusion on teams builds relationships, increases the quality of collaboration, and keeps people engaged, motivated, and proactively contributing. Are you (unintentionally) excluding people who could make your work better?