By Sacha Connor
I worked at The Clorox Company’s Oakland, California, headquarters for six years before moving across the country in 2010 and shifting to a fully remote role. During the eight years I worked remotely for Clorox, I led large marketing, sales, and new product innovation teams while living three time zones away.
One of the teams I led was responsible for more than $250 million in business and did extensive consumer research, creating and refining prototypes, and reviewing packaging graphics. My colleagues and company leaders assumed this work had to be done in person because evaluating and refining package prototypes are often tactile and intensely collaborative processes. I was determined to make sure my presence was felt even though I was 3,000 miles away.
My goal was to make my contributions as seamless as possible so I stayed top of mind with leadership. I wanted my team to remain as integrated as if I were physically present with them. Countering the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality was critical to my success. I realized, too, that the task of insisting on inclusion fell to me because I had the most to lose.
During those eight years, I logged more than 10,000 hours in hybrid meetings. I was often the sole team member who wasn’t physically present in the conference room. That’s no longer the case, as Clorox and many other companies are embracing the hybrid work model.
I know from experience that my physical absence—or maybe it’s more accurate to say my virtual presence—created challenges our team would not have faced if we had all been in the same space at the same time. But this hybrid setup also helped me thrive as a remote leader and develop some best practices for effective hybrid meetings.
It’s surprisingly easy for team members and leaders who are together in person to minimize the contributions and efforts of remote workers. They don’t mean to, but a phenomenon known as distance bias is to blame. Distance bias is our brains’ inherent tendency to assign greater importance to people and situations that are closer to us in time and space. For example, we instinctively prefer and connect more easily with people in the same room over those who are on a video or phone call.
As a remote worker visible on a video screen or invisible on a phone line, I had firsthand experience with distance bias. It was responsible for me being accidentally omitted from meeting invitations or sometimes not even receiving a call-in number. Organizers unintentionally kept their in-person colleagues top of mind when scheduling because the center of gravity, the place where power and influence are concentrated, is where the majority of people are located.
I believe that the best strategy for countering distance bias in hybrid work arrangements is to design all meetings with a virtual-first mentality. Fostering inclusion, which means giving everyone a voice and role, makes the most of everyone’s talents, no matter where they are based. My advice for helping remote and hybrid teams do their best work always includes these recommendations:
When Possible, Forge Relationships With an Initial In-person Meeting
Being in the same space together kick-starts connections by building trust and affinity. Leaders should budget and plan for new remote employees to travel to meet their teammates shortly after hiring. Remote employees can also request this meeting if it is not something currently offered.
Make an Effort to Be on Camera
As a remote participant, if your face is not on screen, you can be completely forgotten and can have a harder time being included in the conversation. In some Clorox meeting rooms, the video system projected my face onto an entire wall. It felt strange, but was preferable to being excluded. If a setup is not already in place, leaders must request a technology solution to allow their remote employees visibility during in-person meetings.
Lean on an In-person Ally
Recognizing that my colleagues could be more receptive to teammates in the same room, I sometimes relied on a co-worker in that space. I’d text her when I wasn’t being heard, and she’d tell the group, “Sacha has something to say.” This turned the group’s attention to me. During in-person brainstorming sessions, I’d text her my ideas so she could scribble them on sticky notes and add them to the whiteboard. Leaders should consider formalizing this process by assigning an in-person ally for every remote employee.
Set the Right Tone
Leaders can help fight distance bias by allowing remote team members to speak before in-person colleagues chime in. This approach ensures that remote workers’ voices are heard.
Discourage Side Conversations
When leading a hybrid meeting, remind the in-person attendees to avoid cross-talk and side conversations. If in-person participants have a point to make, they need to make sure everyone can hear it. If you are a remote leader or participant, ask your in-person ally in advance to please remind the people sharing a conference room to add their points to the group chat, or repeat them aloud so remote attendees are in the loop.
Invest in Hardware and Software for Collaboration
As a leader, make sure the people on video calls can see everyone in the conference room. If some people aren’t visible, you’ll need a wide-angle lens to capture those on the periphery. For brainstorming sessions, try virtual whiteboard software, which allows everyone, including your distributed teammates, to write and paste colorful digital sticky notes.