There is no question that video calls have become a lifeline for many over the past few months. Sales of the software have skyrocketed, virtual happy and coffee hours were our new favourite pastime, our workdays became cluttered with video meetings and we held more quizzes with friends and family than we thought possible.
As stay at home restrictions continue to ease, many businesses continue to support remote working for their employees. Video conferencing is still playing a big part in our lives. Especially our work lives.
But in a summer that has not only challenged us with a pandemic but also confronted us with questions about equality and diversity, how does this new way of working play a role in this discussion?
A new unconscious bias
With much of the strive and upheaval of this summer, unconscious bias is back in vogue. Organisations were praised or plundered based on responses to ongoing political and racial discussions, working groups were formed, and a renewed focus was put on diversity at every level of business.
We did this all remotely. For many of us it was restricted to a small rectangle sitting at our kitchen table, living room or in our makeshift office. It was a screen filled with tiny camera images that our colleagues occupied to work through hard discussions. But I doubt any of us took a step back to think about how this format of the discussion impacted unconscious bias.
The office used to be an equaliser. It was professional and separate from life outside of work. But with mass remote working becoming the norm we are forced to invite colleagues into our homes. So, this begs the question, has our bias evolved?
We used to focus our efforts to combat unconscious bias on first impressions, handshakes, eye contact, clothing choices. But much of this has now been taken away. Instead replaced with images from the shoulders up without physical interaction and limited body language to read. However, it could be argued that video conferencing has actually opened up new avenues for unconscious bias as we showcase more of our personal life to those we work with.
Family pictures, furniture choices, style preferences – they all contribute to the decisions that someone makes about us on a video call. Most of these are subconscious.
But what if it was actually the opposite? What if video conferencing actually made the playing field more equal?
The great neutraliser
While doing a video call from your dining room table might feel like it adds extra opportunities for bias, it could also be viewed as taking them away. One beige wall in the CEO’s house is no different from a beige wall in the home of a new university graduate. You are no longer walking into an intimidating office; you are being invited into the home of a colleague.
While the removal of the office might have been anticipated to create more inequality within the workforce, it has actually taken away some of what the office environment provides. Everyone is at home. Everyone has family or pets or deliveries that might unexpectedly join a call – no matter how senior or professional you are, nobody is immune to this situation.
This shared experience could actually be a trigger to relieve some of the unconscious bias we still hold onto in the office.
Another unexpected side effect of our working world being on video calls is the outpouring of compassion we have seen for each other.
When you work in an office, to an extent, you are expected to leave the outside world at the door. You take on your professional persona. But when your professional world and private world collide in the way they have done this year, that is almost impossible.
Even if you were used to working remotely before the pandemic, it is unlikely that you were used to working remotely with kids and spouses and elderly parents around you as well. You probably weren’t used to scheduling times for meetings in your home office around the other people who needed it or sharing internet bandwidth with children doing online coursework or teenagers wanting to facetime their friends.
Each of our situations was different, but none without their own challenges, and this pushed our colleagues, managers, potential customers to be more understanding. To leave their bias at the virtual door and accept that these distractions might occur.
It humanised us and pushed us to accept that each person we interact with is unique and that is a good thing.
While unconscious bias in the workplace is unlikely to disappear because we have adopted a more remote working culture, we can also make sure that we don’t let it grow. Seeing video conferencing as a great equaliser that builds compassion and comradery – instead of an additional layer of judgement – will go a long way to embracing our new normal.