In one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, George Constanza—the ultimate symbol of professional inadequacy—locks himself out of his car but, rather than call a locksmith, decides to keep the vehicle parked in the office lot, careful to remove the windshield flyers that have accumulated overnight, so his bosses believe he's the first to arrive and last to leave every day. George’s behavior reflects a fundamental truth of office work: visibility creates the illusion of value.
In research published in MIT Sloan Management Review, Daniel Cable of the London Business School describes a pervasive tendency for managers to treat remote workers more harshly than local workers. He shows that telecommuters are less likely to be promoted even in companies that explicitly encourage staff to work from home. Even among Bay Area tech companies, often thought of as models for a distributed workforce, Cable notes that managers asked employees not to come to the office and still unconsciously penalized those who obeyed.
I was drawn to Cable’s study because its findings jive with my professional experience: I noticed a few weeks into my first job after college that new hires tended to stay at the office late—almost always until after their bosses had left—despite having already finished their work, and that those who didn’t were regarded as less hardworking, despite having achieved the same amount of work.
In a partially remote workplace, where certain employees work in a central office while others work elsewhere, this bias has a particularly destructive ability, not least because applying uneven standards across such a team can have a chilling effect on team members’ ability to choose where they work from.
Since this ability is constructive for employees and employers alike, combatting the presenteeism bias is critically importantly. A particularly powerful way to do so is to build a remote team that is inherently visible, such that it becomes difficult for people to conflate visibility with value.
One of the many reasons we’re building Vizy is, as the name suggests, to enable such visibility. We think the best way to do that is with two capabilities:
- Spontaneous communication, or the ability for teammates to communicate in an unplanned and high-quality way, typically using video or audio rather than just text
- Workflow visibility, or the ability for teammates to understand and see what others are working on
Another reason we’re focusing on these two things is because no single existing tool achieves both, or even one, in any satisfactory way. Zoom is good for video conferencing, but not for spontaneous chats. Slack is spontaneous, but it’s also largely text-based which isn’t as efficient as video or audio for communicating ideas. Neither one offers any substantial visibility into what other teammates are working on—you’d have to use Google Docs or other apps with collaborative capabilities to see what a teammate is up to.
In subsequent posts, we’ll explore why these two capabilities aren’t just great for enabling visibility and hedging against the risk of presenteeism bias but also for creativity, innovation, and efficient collaboration among remote teammates.