Watch Out For These Cognitive Biases When Working From Home

As the third month of lockdown approaches, the novelty of working from home has undoubtedly worn off as we’ve adjusted to this new way of working. Whether it is really the “new normal” or not, the reality is that many individuals have transitioned to remote work. Working from home comes with its own set of distractions, but it can also impact our decision making. Two biases in particular — the spotlight effect and distance bias — are prominent in remote work.

The spotlight effect: Why we feel more noticed more than we actually are

The spotlight effect describes our tendency to overestimate the extent to which people notice us.1,2

We have flawed predictions about how others view us, especially those who we see regularly. Research demonstrates that individuals perceive changes in their appearance — a good hair day versus a bad hair day, for example — to be more prominent than they necessarily are. In reality, these changes tend to go relatively unnoticed.1 Even glaringly obvious changes aren’t as apparent to others as we may think. The spotlight effect can help explain why we may feel continually noticed despite this.

Given the changes in business communication over the past few months, it is no surprise that the spotlight effect is relevant to workers today. With the switch to video communication, we are more aware of our appearance, and increasingly feel watched.

Video conferencing in particular may worsen the spotlight effect. Approximately half of all adults are more self-conscious on camera than in real life, with some research suggesting that participants spend over half of a video meeting looking in the camera at their appearance.3 The spotlight effect contributes to what’s known as “zoom fatigue” — the feeling of exhaustion that video conferencing gives us.

To further complicate things, some essential attributes of visual communication are missing in video-conferencing. The removal of instant non-verbal cues, such as body language, causes taxing mental exhaustion.5,6Aspects like intense-staring, silence, or delays in response can lead to negative perceptions of others.7,8As much as we try to use video conferencing to simulate in-person communication, we can’t quite duplicate the aspects that matter the most. Video calls may actually do more harm than good compared to phone conversations. The spotlight effect can be a significant cause of stress and anxiety for individuals and worsens task performance and goal pursuits.4 Overcoming it is no easy task, as even those who are aware of it still don’t correctly gauge how others perceive themselves.1

So, given the spotlight effect’s impact, how can we prevent this bias from hindering our work?

1. Bask in the glory that is our insignificance. Remember, the spotlight effect is an individual’s overestimation of others’ perceptions. That is to say, no one really cares. What individuals find to be more unpleasant when chatting over video are behaviors like sitting too close to the camera, chewing gum, and eating food, as opposed to, say, one’s physical appearance.3 In the aftermath of moments that you feel are exceptionally embarrassing, reflect on the moment as if you were a bystander. Doing so helps you recognize the non-importance of moments you may find stressful or embarrassing. 

2. Think carefully if video calling is required for a situation. Given the reasons suggested, making a case for video conferencing is difficult unless it is absolutely necessary. In most regular scenarios, video isn’t very helpful. Video conferencing can be overly invasive, intimate, and not entirely useful.6 In fact, most benefits of video conferencing come from remote engagement and have little to do with the visual benefits.9,10 So, in future situations, question the need for cameras. In some cases, video conferencing can help build trust and intimacy — but the costs of zoom fatigue may outweigh the benefits.

3. Keep things visual — but not on people. Thanks to screen sharing and other capabilities, leaders can continue to use technology to create visually engaging meetings that don’t rely on staring at the faces of others. 

Distance bias: how “out of sight, out of mind” thwarts our decision making

Distance bias is the tendency to favour what is closest to us.11 The bias occurs not just with physical space, but also with time, as we tend to see approaching deadlines as more important than further ones. This bias mostly impacts our ability to prioritize tasks and assess value in resources or employees. For example, in a study of Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) funds, researchers discovered that fund managers unconsciously preferred local firms for their portfolios as opposed to firms in other cities.12 So, proximity is clearly important in decision making across several subjects, but isn’t necessarily an optimal decision criterion.

Indeed, this bias has significant implications for how we work from home. The effect is impactful in two ways: how we perceive others and how we perceive our own work.

Distance bias and employee evaluations

First, managers should be aware of how this bias impacts employee evaluations. Naturally, individuals trust and give attention to people, projects, or items that are more visibly prevalent. But, distance bias can lead managers to rely on employees that are simply more visible even if these employees aren’t necessarily the best choice for a given situation.13 Productive employees who are “out of sight out, of mind” may get fewer opportunities because they tend to keep to themselves.

Distance bias and work prioritization

Distance bias also plays out in how we perceive our work. As most of us shift to working far from our offices, we might feel differently about the work we have to complete. Tasks can get placed on the back burner, as we may feel less motivated to work on specific projects — or work at all.14

It’s hard to not let distance bias impact our work and lives in a world where we need to distance ourselves from others physically; however, these tips can help lessen the effect:

1. Use long term data to make evaluations. We tend to better remember information that happened recently, which may cause flawed decisions about employee evaluations. Information about an employee’s performance from the previous month does not necessarily provide an accurate picture of that employee’s productivity over the long term. So, begin recording or journalling information over a longer period and use this long-term data to make more concrete decisions.11 

2. Ensure all employees get a seat at the table. One benefit of being remote is that we have some control over who we run into at work. Without being physically present in the office, we aren’t influenced by those who work near us, or who we happen to see in the breakroom often. On the flip side, employees should recognize that distance bias may get in the way of promotions. They may have to counter this by taking a more active approach to remain on the minds of their managers. 

3. Work with your team to properly prioritize work tasks. Be wary of relying on time or physical distance as a measure. Keep in mind that far-away deadlines may require a considerable amount of planning and reap a greater reward than closer deadlines. Collaborating with your team often and continually checking in on all projects will ensure you aren’t prioritizing anything incorrectly.

So, as working from home becomes a reality, it’s essential to recognize that cognitive biases may be holding us back from doing better work.

First, the spotlight effect reminds us that we likely overestimate how people perceive us — whether video chatting or in-person. Although challenging, becoming aware of this effect can help reduce anxiety and help us make better contributions to our teams. Second, distance bias may alter our ability to prioritize value in our projects and coworkers. With the shift to working from home, we gain a new sense of control over what we keep distant, allowing us to evaluate and prioritize what we consider important.

As we make daily adjustments to this evolving working life, we can strategically combat cognitive biases to strengthen our team and ourselves.