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The “Zoom Ceiling” Bias in the Remote Workplace

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The widespread adoption of remote work seems to have drawn an audible gasp from experts who have suggested remote employees’ careers will languish beneath the “Zoom ceiling” while their in-person colleagues rack up promotions, raises, and corner-office real estate.

Well, this is a form of bias and discrimination that is even more complicated with hybrid teams than 100% remote teams.

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A study published last year by University of Pittsburgh business professor David Lebel, who surveyed 1,729 of the school’s remote employees three times in 2020, found that while remote work increased employees’ work-life balance, it could be an obstacle to career advancement, writing: “Interpersonal connections between managers and employees have a positive effect on promotion and career advancement—research shows that people not connected to those at work don’t get promoted as often.”

How about that celebratory dinner after getting a project across the finish line? Drinks? 🍹

Proximity bias—the notion that managers are more likely to promote and favor in-person employees over their remote colleagues—can materialize at any hybrid organization, Rod Lacey, chief people officer at SaaS provider SimPro, told HR Brew. If two employees, one remote and one in-person, are vying for the same promotion and have historically performed at the same level, Lacey said, the in-person candidate will likely have an edge.

What can be done?

But employers can clamp down on the threat of proximity bias by equipping remote employees with the resources they need to advance

  • Setting clear performance expectations
  • In a team meeting where some people are remote and some are in-person, have everyone still use their own camera so the “remote workers” aren’t left to a small screen
  • Include some chatting time before and after the meeting so remote employees can be included in the “hallway” or “water cooler” talk that strengthens team building
  • Host both remote and in-person events (Ex. if having a lunch party at the office, send a $20 voucher for employees to order a meal to their homes and participate as well)

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