Companies rarely promote people into leadership roles who haven’t been consistently seen and measured. It’s a familiarity thing, and it’s a trust thing. We’re not saying that the people who get promoted are stars during every “crucible” moment at the office, but at least they’re present and accounted for. And their presence says: Work is my top priority. I’m committed to this company. I want to lead. And I can.
- Jack and Suzie Welch in a 2007 Business Week column
After all the hullabaloo about Yahoo eliminating its work from home policy I thought a lot about how distributed work is part of everyday life on many Thoughtworks teams. It’s certainly true for our Mingle team where we have a pair of great developers who are based in the UK while the rest of the team is based in San Francisco.
At the heart of the issue seems to be the concept called "face time bias" where in-office staff are given more access, higher raises and other preferential treatment over their distributed colleagues.Google tells me that Face Time and the Unspoken Bias Behind Nontraditional Work Cultures - UC Davis Graduate School of Management (more detailed version) is the most reputable/referenced public article on the subject. On reading it, I was initially a bit put off with their “tip”, as it seems to come from a place of distrust:
Furthermore, there can be an underlying suspicion towards how their time is spent regardless of the quality of their work
I would like to think that we start from a position of trust with all of our co-workers. However, the detailed version provided a bit more context. They note that there are two kinds of passive face time:
These two kinds of face time bias lead to different kinds of trait inferences. The authors ran experiments and the results were interesting but perhaps not surprising:
The results were clear and robust across multiple samples: Managers were 9% more likely to unconsciously attribute the traits “dependable” and “responsible” to people who put in expected face time and 25% more likely to unconsciously attribute the traits “committed” and “dedicated” to people who put in extracurricular face time. These results were statistically significant across each of our experiments. - MIT Sloan Management Review
Perhaps the troubling thing about face time bias is that it is usually unintentional or even unconscious. So if the best of us may be guilty of committing face time bias what can we do to avoid it?
How do you battle the bias?
I like to think that implicit trust and our style of working help us to avoid the pitfalls of face time bias e.g:
Based on a *very* informal poll, we think that our culture and the way we work helps us avoid face time bias. While we don’t know if there’s a silver bullet for avoiding face time bias on a distributed team our experience suggests that visibility, via video to help human interaction, and visibility via a simple virtual card wall to show work progress, seem to go a long way.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.