Face Time and the Unspoken Bias Behind Nontraditional Work Cultures

Professor Kimberly Elsbach conducts research on the acquisition and maintenance of organizational images, identities and reputations. She teaches negotiation skills in competitive business environments. Elsbach has published extensively on organizational reputations and controversies and has studied the impacts of telecommuting and how the work place has transformed.

Let’s face it: work culture has changed radically in the last decade, and those changes are here to stay. Telecommuting and flex time aren’t going anywhere, and it’s likely that nontraditional work arrangements will only continue to become more creative over time. These kinds of arrangements are tailored solutions that equally benefit both the employee and the companies they work for.

Telecommuting and flex time are widely lauded as the future of work, a revolutionary new approach to the relationship between employer and employee, with only benefits and no downsides. However, because I conduct a considerable amount of research on this topic, I found that anecdotally, there is frequently a negative perception towards individuals who spend time working outside the office. Namely, that they don’t get the same amount of recognition and credit as those who are physically in the office. Furthermore, there can be an underlying suspicion towards how their time is spent regardless of the quality of their work.

I found that there were no empirical studies on this topic, and as a result, conducted the study “Why Showing Your Face Matters” with Daniel Cable. We found that this bias does indeed exist, and that employees who work remotely may end up getting lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions than their colleagues in the office — even if they work just as hard and just as long.

This bias can be traced back to the concept of passive face time, which is nothing more than just showing up and having your boss and coworkers see your face. Although I do believe that remote work is here to stay, it’s important for both employers and remote workers to be aware that this kind of bias exists, and to take steps to make sure it doesn’t affect people in a negative way.

What can we do to avoid the negative implications of this bias? Our article provides a full outline of actionable tactics, which I’ve paraphrased below.

Tips For Managers:

  •  Don’t use trait-based evaluations. Trait-based evaluations measure employees’ on factors like “leadership ability” or “teamwork.” Evidence suggests that these evaluations are flawed and do not help employees understand what to change. Instead, focus your evaluations on performance and results.
  • As much as possible, use objective output measures. Managers who implement telecommuting and flexible hours should revise their performance appraisals to measure mostly objective outputs, such as number and type of projects completed or expert evaluations of project quality.
  • Consider work arrangements when using peer feedback. Many organizations use “360-degree” appraisals in which employees are rated by peers and subordinates as well as managers. However, coworkers and subordinates may be just as prone to making unconscious trait judgments as managers are. Supervisors should be wary of using trait-based performance measures, especially when evaluating remote workers, and employees working remotely need to make sure they are evaluated on objective outputs.

Tips For Employees:

  • Make regular phone or e-mail status reports. As an employee, make sure you never “go dark.” Email and call colleagues regularly throughout the day so that they know you’re working from home.
  • Be extra visible when in the office. If you spend a lot of time working at home, it’s tempting to spend time at work catching up with coworkers. However, this might signal that you spend your time working at home in a similar fashion, chatting on the phone or wasting time in other ways. When in the office, stay focused, and point out when you’re missing lunch or breaks to meet a specific deadline. Lastly, make it a priority to meet with your supervisor so that you can connect with him or her in person.
  • Be immediately available at home. Make sure you respond quickly to phone calls and emails when working from home. Delaying a response could give the impression that you’re unavailable or that you’re unfocused. 
  • Get others to talk you up. Identify key people in the company and make yourself known to them. Carve out time to check in with them and let them know what you’re working on. They’ll remember you when it comes time for your performance review, and they’ll be more likely to talk about you and work with your supervisor
  • E-mail or voice mail early or late in the day. If you’re working past regular office hours, let that be known by sending a few emails or voicemails at the end of your day to make others aware of the long hours you’re putting in.

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