HomeCase StudiesSlack: Fighting proximity bias in light of return-to-office orders

Slack: Fighting proximity bias in light of return-to-office orders

by HRD Connect | Case Studies

As businesses push for a return to office renewing fears about proximity bias, those in the hybrid camp are looking at ways to evolve the model in favor of equity and inclusion. People leaders are becoming increasingly mindful of the emergence of a two-speed corporate environment which could inadvertently disadvantage employees who opt for hybrid work due to proximity bias – a discrimination that favors those physically present over their remote counterparts.

US-headquartered tech giant Slack is taking an active stance against proximity bias. Slack’s research has identified that certain employee groups such as ethnic minorities, women and parents are more likely to work remotely. Brian Elliott, Senior Vice-President at Slack and executive leader of Future Forum insists that a hybrid model can only be fair if it actively seeks to accommodate everyone.

“Without active leadership and investment, hybrid can be the “messy middle” of work models,” Brian says. “Challenges such as proximity bias come up because certain employee groups, executives, men, white knowledge workers, non-parents, are opting into in-person office work at higher rates than others.

The great rethink

It’s important to recognize that the changing work landscape is catalyzing what Elliott refers to as the ‘great rethink’. According to Slack’s research, 78% of workers are seeking more flexibility in their work lives. The traditional, rigid model of work is being challenged, and workers are increasingly looking for a balance that fits their lifestyle and day-to-day commitments.

“People aren’t just resigning – they’re moving to better opportunities and places that are a better fit for their lives and values. They’re reconsidering company purpose, leadership transparency, whether they feel likely they truly belong in their team and organization – and, most importantly, flexibility.” Elliott states. “Aspects like company purpose, leadership transparency, and, importantly, flexibility is coming under greater scrutiny.”

Not just about location

Flexibility is an umbrella term that needs to encompass more than just the location of work. A genuinely inclusive and equitable hybrid work model also needs to consider the timing of work. Elliott references Slack’s survey findings, stating, “95% of respondents want flexibility in their work schedules. Moreover, those who have it show improved work-life balance, sense of belonging, and productivity compared to those who only have location flexibility.”

In response to these findings, Slack has implemented a concept of ‘core hours’. This approach designates a portion of the day for real-time collaboration and meetings, while the rest of the day allows employees to manage their own time. This strategy gives each employee the space for deep, focused work or personal obligations while preventing the ‘always on’ culture often associated with remote work.

Everyone is seen and heard

As the world shifts towards hybrid work, digital tools play a crucial role in fostering communication and collaboration. However, they can inadvertently create barriers if not utilized effectively. Elliott emphasizes the importance of inclusivity when using digital tools, ensuring that everyone feels equally seen and heard, regardless of their location.

“Technology can indeed bridge gaps, but it’s important to use it judiciously,” Brian advises. “At Slack, we have norms like ‘one dials in, all dial in’, for video calls, which ensures that all participants feel equally included. While using digital tools, it’s essential to make sure everyone is on the same page and feels part of the conversation.”

To foster a more creative and productive work environment, Slack is testing out ‘no-meeting Fridays’ and ‘Maker Weeks’. These initiatives aim to give employees undistracted time for in-depth work or to engage in creative thinking.

“By blocking out times for focused work or innovation, we’re trying to ensure that our employees can work at their optimum capacity,” Elliott explains. “This is also an attempt to prevent work from seeping into personal time, thereby maintaining a healthy work-life balance.”

The role of leadership in setting the tone

Leadership is paramount in setting the tone for a successful hybrid work model. Elliott underscores the importance of leaders leading by example. If top executives spend an excessive amount of time in the office, it could inadvertently pressure others to follow suit. To avoid this, Slack has implemented ‘speed limits’ on the number of days leaders should spend in the office.

“By imposing ‘speed limits’, we are encouraging leaders to model the behavior we want to see across the organization,” Elliott says. “The aim is not to just provide lip service to flexibility, but to demonstrate its application in our everyday work practices.”

Progress, not perfection

Change especially on a large scale, is often a process of continuous refinement and learning. Elliott emphasizes that the approach towards an ideal hybrid work model is one of “progress, not perfection”. This philosophy has translated into a positive work environment at Slack, as reflected by its impressive 4.6 average rating on Glassdoor – a score higher than many tech giants like Google, Apple, and Microsoft.

“The future of work will be digital-first but being digital doesn’t necessarily mean always remote,” Elliott concludes.

“As a company, we emphasize “progress not perfection” and keep this in mind as a design principle. As we experiment and learn what’s working, and what’s not, we’ll also gladly continue to share what we learn with everyone – to make work better for all people and organizations.”

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