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  • Writer's pictureBen Capell

Managing Biases on Video Calls- Good News, Bad News and Recommendations

Over the last few years, there has been tremendous progress in our understanding of unconscious biases. By now, few people will disagree with the fact that unconscious mechanisms significantly impact our ability to make objective decisions, especially related to people. The focus has been gradually shifting from “awareness” towards improving our ability to recognize our own biases and incorporate practices to help us mitigate their impact.

All along though, a large part of the conversation about biases has focused on face-to-face interactions. This all made perfect sense in the ‘good old days’ when our work life was mostly offline.

With the recent social distancing practices- this is not true anymore.

Now that our ‘office’ has moved online and we meet over virtual platforms, it is time to consider the impact of this shift on our biases and identify the actions we should take to help ensure we keep on making objective and fair decisions.

Biases in video calls: How moving from face-to-face to video interactions change the way we get impacted by our biases

Good news first- some biases are likely to impact us less

1. Physical attributes: When meeting through screens, we should probably be less worried about biases triggered by physical attributes such as height or weight. Similarly, and hopefully, the virtual setting could serve as an equalizer for people with certain physical disabilities, for example, in the case of using a wheelchair.

2. Gestures: There are also other advantages to the virtual setting. Gestures are known to influence our assessment of others. For instance, studies show that in Western cultures, a weak handshake can hurt a person’s first impression. In an Asian context, an equivalent could be using only one hand when exchanging business cards. No matter where you live, as long as you stay behind a screen, you should feel relieved from concerns about possible quick judgments resulting from such physical exchanges.

The bad news: some biases will impact us more

With the absence of physical contact, we will be paying more attention to various visual or audio signals.

1. Visual background: there is a danger that we will make assumptions about others due to their physical surroundings. Imagine you have a zoom meeting with two equally talented candidates. One’s background is an elegant modern office, the other, due to lockdown, is speaking from an improvised home office, you can spot a kitchen behind, and occasionally you hear occasional children noise. There is a risk that all those background factors will end up influencing the overall impression of the candidate.

2. Audio signals: Without the physical interaction, we are also likely to be even more susceptible to biases resulting from verbal cues such as accents, language skills, and communication patterns, for instance, the degree our counterpart tends to speak up or holds silence.

3. Technological issues: Then, of course, there is the impact of technology. Studies show we could misjudge a person’s personality simply due to a technological issue that is experienced on the call. As an example, a 2014 study showed that even very short technical delays on phone systems could make people assume the responder to be unfriendly or not focused. One more thing to consider in this aspect is that not all people are as comfortable with technology. A factor that could impact their stress level and consequently, the impression we get.

Considering the above, here are some recommendations for managing biases in virtual settings

1. Stay focused and manage your energy level: If anything, video calls, tend to drain more attention than face-to-face meetings, and so there is a general risk that the extra cognitive load will make us more prawn prone to biased decisions. That means that as a first step, we should do our best to create conducive conditions for making an unbiased decision. Recommendations will include to proactively manage our health and wellbeing, to avoid multitasking, and not to make decisions when we are too stressed, rushed, hungry or tired.

2. Zoom in to the person you speak with- not the background: We should hold ourselves from getting swayed by factors such as the surroundings behind the person or possible interruptions. Where possible we can enable people to make adjustments such as changing the background effects, a technological feature now available in many video platforms. If you do catch yourself making quick judgments based on such variables, remind yourself that we never really know the reality and challenges the other person is facing now. In similar veins, try not to let technology have too big of a role. Leverage technology as a means to connect with others, if it causes some difficulties, stay alert to those issues from your assessment of the person you speak with and offer up opportunities for people to contribute in different ways in addition to the video calls.

3. Continue implementing best practices for mitigating bias: Also, as always, we should follow essential best practices. For example, when evaluating candidates or proposals, have clear decision-making criteria, conduct a structured evaluation process, and get perspective from a diverse panel. These practices can help mitigate the impact of biases, whether you meet offline or online. As human beings, we are more likely to spot unconscious bias than in others than we are in ourselves, so creating the trusted environment where we can support and challenge each other on our decisions can prove beneficial in mitigating the negative impact of unconscious bias, as well as strengthening our relationships.

In summary: with the increased dependency on video calls, we need to pay more attention to how to manage our biases in this prominent interaction context. Adapting some of the best practices we are already familiar with to the new setting, plus making some other reasonable adjustments, can help ensure we keep on making progress in our ability to make objective, unbiased decisions.

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