A growing number of people are working out of the office. But come performance evaluation season, that could be costing them.

Executive Brief

  • Research shows that some managers harbor an unconscious bias against remote workers.
  • We’ve been socialized to view “reliable” workers as those most at their desks, so we often put a high value “face-time.”
  • Companies like Microsoft have even included remote workers examples in their unconscious bias trainings.

  • According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 43% of Americans say they work remotely “at least sometimes.” But even as this kind of working arrangement becomes increasingly common, some managers still value in-house workers over those that they can’t see.

    Research shows remote workers could be missing out on opportunities available only to in-office workers, because managers still value “face time” above all else — even when it doesn’t seem to have a direct effect on an individual employee’s performance.

    Not all offices are prone to this kind of bias, says Kimberly Elsbach, professor of management at University of California, Davis. Some jobs, of course, require lots of travel or away-from-desk work as part of the role. And other companies are comprised entirely of remote employees. But offices where only some of the employees telecommute and others work in the office are perfect environments for this “face-time bias” to flourish, Elsbach says.

    “There is this unconscious perception of people who are seen around the office during regular working hours and outside of regular hours as dedicated, reliable, committed, dependable,” she says. “People who aren’t around as much, who are just not as visible, are scored lower on those kinds of traits.”

    The ideal worker

    These perceptions are rooted in traditional ideas about desk work and ideal worker stereotypes, Elsbach says.

    “The longstanding socialization that starts when we’re young: we see repeated images of successful professionals as those people who are at work, physically at work, a lot,” she says.

    As a result, the people who aren’t physically in the office as much may pay a penalty when it comes to performance review and promotion season — even if they’re working just as hard, or even harder, than their colleagues at their desks.

    While the term “unconscious bias” is typically used to describe deeply engrained stereotypes about race, ethnicity, gender and other personal demographics, Elsbach says it can also apply to remote workers.

    “I do think a lot of it is unconscious,” she says. “If you ask people, ‘Would you rate them lower because you don’t see them?’ They don’t realize they’re not doing this as a conscious and deliberate thing.”

    Using the tools

    When she first started working remotely for Microsoft in 2003, Stacy Elliott says she worried about missing out on watercooler chatter, hallway conversations and other crucial face-time moments. She worked from Dallas, more than 2,000 miles away from the main Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington.

    “Back then, it was definitely something I was concerned about,” she says. “I worked hard to make sure that I was available, that my schedule fit in with the schedule on the West Coast.”

    Elliott, who is now senior director for communications at Microsoft, says she dealt with a lot of technological snafus at the time: dial-up internet, dropped calls and more. But now, she worries less about the distance.

    Elliott attributes much of that improvement to a cultural change, one that normalizes remote work and uses technology to make the most of it. At Microsoft, she says, multiple people will call in to any one meeting or conference call, and her team is frequently triangulating time zones and call times to make sure everyone can participate.

    “The technology has been an incredible game changer,” she says. “The ability to connect anywhere in the world — it’s made all the difference.”

    By using videoconferencing and chat tools like Skype and instant messaging, Rich Kaplan, general manager of employee experience at Microsoft, says he’s seen teams “move beyond” the face-time bias. Sometimes, he says, a team will host multiple meetings on the same topic, to make sure everyone from different time zones has a chance to chime in.

    “I think the technology is good enough today where if you really want to be diverse and inclusive globally, you have no choice but to use the tools to your advantage,” he says.

    Today, Microsoft even includes a remote worker example as part of the company’s unconscious bias training. In one scenario, everyone gathers in a meeting room, only to realize they forgot to invite the remote worker.

    Fighting the bias

    Remote workers and their managers can work together to ensure remote worker bias doesn’t poison a team dynamic, says Jennifer Moss, author of “Unlocking Happiness at Work.” She recommends managers set up regular “non-agenda” chats with remote employees, in this way kind of formalizing what would otherwise be an informal deskside talk.

    “They don’t get to interact in a non-formal way, so their boss doesn’t know who they are,” Moss says of forgotten remote workers. “What should happen is you have informal calls to talk about nothing, or calls to talk about what’s going on in each others’ lives, that doesn’t make it necessarily about work.”

    Remote workers, too, have a responsibility to make their voices heard, even if it requires a bit more forethought. Elliott says she used to write down talking points before a conference call, so she’d know when to jump in and make her presence known.

    Elsbach also suggests managers more carefully examine their impressions of employees. In performance evaluations, eliminating subjective criteria can help keep face-time bias in check. Rather than asking subjective questions like “Do I think this employee is a good team player?” she suggests instead asking about measurable items, like, “When this person was a leader of a project, was the project done on time? How was the quality?”