Sacha Connor, founder of Virtual Work Insider helps leaders maintain a strong culture on how to be connected and engaged with hybrid and remote workspaces. She has spent years cultivating and understanding what it takes to make hybrid workplaces effective since 2010. Ever since her former employer, Clorox, approved her to move from California across the country to Pennsylvania, Connor has been strategizing on the best ways companies can capitalize on their employees’ expertise in the virtual arena. This is an abbreviated conversation between her and Dr. Weaver.
WEAVER: What difference did the pandemic have on workplace culture?
CONNOR: My remote work story started in 2010. That’s when I was working for Clorox, headquartered in Oakland, California. When my husband and I had our first child, our family lived in the Philly area and we wanted her to grow up near her grandparents. That’s what prompted me to ask the question to Clorox, “Could I keep my job but do it from the opposite coast of the United States?” In 2010, it was unheard of at the time to have a job like I did, which was leading large new products, innovation teams, sales teams, and marketing teams, and not be at headquarters. I had a good relationship with the chief marketing officer and he approved.
I was in a small minority. It was on my shoulders to make sure that I was included. For all my meetings, I had to reach out to the meeting host and ask for the dial-in number. With the pandemic, I saw this incredible empathy exercise where now everyone was having to work fully, remotely and think about how to connect with each other across distance.
WEAVER: How do workplaces create their culture when everybody’s everywhere?
CONNOR: Oftentimes people conflate culture with happy hours and foosball tables. Happy Hours help with comradery building, which is the mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together. It’s an important part of culture, but culture is a much bigger concept. It’s the values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that are shared by a team. It’s how people work together toward a common goal, and it’s how they treat each other. That’s hard to do when you are working in hybrid teams because you’re behind these virtual curtains where those values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are picked up when we’re co-located together. That’s how we see how people work together and how they treat each other. But when we’re working across distance, the small peak in through our digital communication.
When we work with companies, we start with the values. Then we observe behaviors that teams and employees should be demonstrating. One of our client’s values is standing for equality and to not sit on the sidelines: “We speak up for fairness and equity.” If we look at that value through a location inclusive lens, a specific behavior that you could point to is something like “live meetings are designed in a way to enable everyone to feel heard and valued regardless of location.” Then you can start to teach people how to facilitate meetings that allow people to be heard and feel like they’re part of the discussion.
WEAVER: What about people who don’t want to be on camera?
CONNOR: I think being comfortable on camera is difficult. I’ve had years and years of training to get comfortable on camera. You want to have your camera on to have that presence and it also helps other people read expressions. Zoom fatigue is a real thing. I think it’s important to have conversations with your team about what meetings are important to have your camera on and then what meetings could be audio only.
As a location inclusive advocate and not a remote work advocate, my goal is to teach leaders and their teams how to communicate, collaborate, and build culture and influence across distance.
Whatever distance means for that company’s situation, each company needs to decide based on their company values and the needs of the employees. They use that information to decide what their workforce and workplace strategy is.
WEAVER: How does D.E.I. play out in the advocacy that you provide organizations?
CONNOR: I got my start with helping teams work across this distance while I was at Clorox when I co-founded the very first virtual Employee Resource Group. At first, I thought we were creating a group for this small percentage of fully remote workers at Clorox to be able to share with each other and to feel like we had a community. Then it started to evolve into the largest and fastest growing ERG at Clorox. Even though people worked at headquarters, they were working with other office sites—the tech center for Clorox’s is a 30-minute drive away from headquarters. That’s when this huge light bulb went off for me: everything I was learning to do fully remotely was applicable to 95% of the Clorox workforce.
There are some common unconscious biases that happen in these hybrid and remote environments. The first one is distance bias, also known as proximity bias, which is our brain’s natural tendency to put more importance on the people and things that are closer to us than those that are farther away. That’s part of the Neuro Leadership Institute’s unconscious bias (SEEDs) model–which is our brain’s natural tendency to put more value on the people and things that we’ve seen or heard from more recently. When you become aware of those unconscious biases, then you must start thinking about tactics to mitigate those biases and shift toward more location inclusion.
WEAVER: Research shows some of today’s younger workforce worries about being able to create friendships when working .
CONNOR: Dr. Marissa Franco, a friendship researcher, described the ingredients of friendship as continuous unplanned interaction and shared vulnerability. The more we’re exposed to each other, the more familiar we become to each other, then the more likely we are to like another person, and then for them to like us back. That means that we need to intentionally create these repeated interactions over time. Put a weekly or even daily reminder on your calendar to reach out to one person digitally in your network. This could be about strengthening an existing relationship or creating a new relationship. Use direct message in Slack or Microsoft teams just saying hello, sharing something that you did over the weekend. It could be a video where you record yourself talking about something that’s important to you or sharing an idea that you have. These small little moments and interactions matter.
WEAVER: We do a lot of work with frontline employees–utility workers, police, or people in the hospital. They don’t have the option to work remotely. There’s a slight schism between those people that must come to work all the time versus those who work remotely. What are you telling companies to consider doing to alleviate this issue?
CONNOR: The first thing about the frontline workers who are required to go in because the job that they do requires some sort of physical piece to it or meeting people in person are companies thinking through what kind of flexibility they can provide to those frontline workers: What kind of benefits are they considering? For example, more flexibility in time. Maybe you would have a greater choice in the time of your shift or when you need to be in the location where you work from. Or allowing them some location flexibility by providing required training from the comfort of their home.
When people work remotely it comes with a problem of that distance bias and recency bias that can impact somebody’s career progression. To create that inclusive culture, we need to provide equal access to information, people, opportunities, regardless of where people live and work from.
When I moved to Philadelphia back in 2010, I was told I would never get promoted because to be director level or above you had to be at headquarters. I was told I’d never get to work on some roles because those roles were too important to not be at headquarters. I was told that I was going to move from high potential to low potential, not because my skills had changed, but because we had uncovered that there was distance bias in the people process. The potential was linked to promotability and the promotability was linked to location.
I took that on as a challenge to have them rethink that. I got them to de-link potential from location. As we think about these companies moving forward, we need to keep an eye on people processes to see if that distance bias is baked into those processes.