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Remote Workers May Face Challenges in the Hybrid Office

Another change that companies such as Zillow and Salesforce are making to level the playing field for remote workers is in how they conduct meetings. Instead of having in-office employees gather in a conference room while remote employees dial in, if one person is not in the physical room, everyone will dial in separately on their laptop, regardless of whether they’re in the office.

“Space is equal on the screen, and everybody’s name is there,” Ms. Reibstein said.

To foster the spontaneity of office interactions, Indeed is exploring technology that includes installing screens in its office kitchens that would allow remote workers to engage in casual “water cooler” conversations with their co-workers (perhaps in sight of an actual water cooler). Office small talk has been shown to foster a greater sense of belonging.

Changes like these may help reduce some of the bias against remote workers, but only up to a point.

Take meetings in which everyone dials in from a laptop: “After the meeting ends, the three people at the office close their laptops, step out of the cubicles, go grab a coffee, go chat in the corridor, basically carry the meeting on,” said Dr. Bloom of Stanford. “And so you just naturally have an in group and an out group.”

One of the bigger factors that could drive inequality between remote and office-based workers is proximity to company leaders, who tended to be in the office full time before the pandemic. When executives are themselves working remotely, it lessens the perceived advantage of getting face time with decision makers in the office.

At Slack, executives have agreed to work no more than three days in the office each week, said Brian Elliott, who leads the company’s future of work think tank. “In terms of setting the example, they are going to be exhibiting flexibility,” he said.

Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School, ran an experiment last summer in collaboration with a global bank whose employees were mostly working remotely because of the pandemic. He randomly assigned summer interns to have video meetings with senior leaders, other interns or nobody. The number of meetings assigned to each intern also varied randomly. Meeting senior managers had a very strong effect on an intern’s receiving a job offer.

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