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48 Thoughts on Bias and Brainstorms in a Hybrid Workplace

If you picture a creative brainstorm held in your office in 2019, odds are that session might look very different from a creative brainstorm held in your office, or virtually, or in a hybrid environment, in 2022. Even if your organization has done the DEI work to ensure equitable practices around who gets to be “in the room” and why, the concept of “the room” itself has changed along with the nature of how many of us collaborate each day. This adds in new nuances for those committed to equitable and unbiased execution in creative brainstorms.

What happens if some people are in-person while others are remote? What happens if there are unfortunate discrepancies in race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, ability or status between those two groups? And what about extroverts versus introverts—what about all the different ways people conceive, share and refine their ideas? How do our implicit biases impact whose voices will be heard?

To dig into best practices to ensure that implicit biases don’t have a negative impact on creative sessions in a hybrid workplace culture, we recently talked with David Dylan Thomas, a cognitive bias expert who is a twenty-year practitioner, speaker and author of Design for Cognitive Bias.

Here are 48 of his thoughts.

1. "Any human being has to make literally a trillion decisions every day, and if you think carefully about every single one of those decisions, you'll never get anything done. So our mind just takes shortcuts all the time. Those shortcuts do sometimes lead to error, and we call those errors cognitive biases."

2. "If we have been exposed to media that tells us that Black people are dangerous, if every time we see a Black guy on the news, it's a crime that's being committed, it's a pattern that's being built up."

3. "When a white interviewer is interviewing a Black interviewee, they tend to sit further back and ask fewer questions. They don't even know they did it."

4. "When we talk about bias it's important to sort of delineate the sort of more explicit—someone is, in fact, coming from a place of hatred, and doing evil things—to the far more common, and in some ways more destructive moments when you may have committed an act that is hurtful to someone, without even realizing you did it."

5. "Hybrid brainstorms [with some people in-person and some on Zoom] are a bad idea. It is simply inescapable that the people who are on Zoom will be less fed than the people who are in the room. They will be neglected to a certain extent."

6. "It is better to have a session that is fully virtual, or a session that is fully in-person. One or the other. But the worst-case scenario is to do it hybrid."

7. "If a hybrid session is inescapable, you have to ask yourself, why is this happening the way it's happening? Because another scenario to consider, frankly, is something that happens in the hiring process."

8. "A friend of mine got a job through an equitable interview process—they said, look, if everyone who we want to interview is able to be here in the office to do the interview, then that's how we'll do it, but if even one person can't do it in the office, we're doing all of them virtual."

9. "So if we're really going to talk about equity, that is something to consider—to say, we are going to default to the most accessible option, which is sitting in front of a computer, rather than saying, well, the folks who can make it in person are going to get an advantage. And it is an inescapable advantage. Just empirically, I can tell you from doing this many times, being in the room is always better."

10. "What I have witnessed has consistently been that the people who are online get the short end of the stick."

11. "Some companies have decided to go completely virtual, except that they will have spaces in certain regions that are specifically for brainstorming."

12. "They say, all the money we're saving on overhead by getting rid of this big office, we’re going to take that money, put it into doing a brainstorm. We're flying everybody out and putting them up for the weekend because it's that important that these people be in-person."

13. "Let's be honest. What this stuff usually comes down to is money. It is cheaper to say, everyone stay at home, or to say, everyone who's near the office come into the office, and we'll do it hybrid, than it is to say that we're going to fly everybody out to this one location."

14. "I do think that doing brainstorming sessions in person, depending on the context, is actually much better."

15. "I think once you get to the level of some people are in the room, some people are not, that's the bias."

16. "The people in the room are reacting to each other's physicality in a way that you simply can't [with online attendees] because the only other thing in the room is a screen. It is a flat screen."

17. "Even if you had an individual flat screen for every other virtual attendee, then what you usually have is just a big Brady Bunch grid, faces that are super tiny compared to the faces of the other people in the room. So even physically, now they're smaller and our brain interprets that as they're less important."

18. "Our brain is going to react to the thing in the room much more presently than the thing on the screen."

19. "Unless it's a football game, the thing on the screen is less important than the thing in the room. It's just basic common sense."

20. "If there's a snake in the grass, I'm going to react to that. If there's a picture of a snake on a screen, I'm not going to care."

21. "What you are interacting with onscreen—you're not seeing me, you're seeing your computer’s best guess about what I look like and sound like. And it's a very good guess, so it looks like me, it feels like me, but it's just zeros and ones."

22. "So, no matter what race or color the person on the screen is, they're always going to get short shrift compared to the person in the room. And the only way I can see that changing is if the person on the screen is your boss. Someone with power. Then you'd be paying attention to the screen. Other than that, why are you not going to favor the thing that's literally right in front of you?"

23. "It's not only that you’ll favor the extrovert who you’re friends with, who you've known for 20 years."

24. "I would always say, if the person wants to stay off-camera, let them stay off-camera. And I would go so far as to say, if it comes down to it, make everybody off-camera. If you think that that is actually going to influence who gets listened to, everybody's off-camera."

25. "What we've been focusing on ever since COVID started is 'How do we make the virtual environment reflect the actual in-person environment as much as possible?' And it's not the same. We're asking Zoom to do a lot that it can't."

26. "I think what's more important and interesting to think about are the opportunities we get in a virtual environment."

27. "What we haven't been doing as much is saying, 'Well, what can we do with Zoom that we can't do in person?'"

28. "The chat feature gives us a lot of interesting power."

29. "I've had these meetings where you'll have the in-person meeting, and some will be on camera, some will not, and in the chat there’s this running commentary on the meeting. So you sort of actually have two meetings going at the same time, and that sounds chaotic, but weirdly it's not, because they're related."

30. "There's a lot of rich information that comes out in the chat that wouldn't come out if you were actually in-person, because it's sequential when you're in-person. You can't have these side conversations that we all can see. So there's some really interesting opportunity there."

31. "The people who are using the chat are typically going to be the folks who aren't as comfortable stepping up and being the center of attention. The chat gives them a way to contribute that's less in your face."

32. "I went to a virtual event and as people are coming in, they said, as you’re coming into the meeting, type in where you're from, and if you want to, do a land acknowledgment. And what was interesting about that is, later, they asked people to share experiences where technology had excluded or failed them. And people were just voluminous with how much stuff they were willing to share. My pet theory is that the vulnerability that people showed early on by doing those land acknowledgments made it easier to be vulnerable later."

33. "There are any number of ways we can be using the technology to do something that only the technology can do."

34. "When we talk about virtual meetings there's a way in which the opportunity for being inclusive increases considerably."

35. "If you're talking about a group that you're trying to advocate for who is in Puerto Rico, now, suddenly, it's possible—if they have an Internet connection, or if you want to bring them to a place that has an Internet connection, they can participate in a way they couldn't if everything was in person."

36. "There's an adage I’m sure you’ve heard: Nothing about us without us. That's how you know it's white saviorism, when work is being done on behalf of someone without any input from them at all."

37. "If we want to veer away from the outcome of a campaign being wildly different than the intent of the campaign, it is important to share power with the folks that the campaign is meaning to help, right?"

38. "I think if the intent is to serve a community in a way that is authentic to that community, it is probably a better approach, or more likely to succeed—not just getting input from them, but literally saying, “At the end of the day, if you don't like this creative, it's not going out.”

39. "One of the first things I learned in a facilitating workshop is the job of the facilitator is not to lead so much as to listen, and to pay attention to the group dynamics of the room."

40. "You can't just ask the introvert to come in and be an extrovert for an hour."

41. "Whether you're talking about in-person or online, you want to create an environment where people get the opportunity to be who they are and still contribute, so the person who needs to be asked gets asked, and the person who doesn't need to be asked doesn't get asked."

42. "The facilitation of these meetings can help level the playing field, but also literally the structure of how you were coming up with that idea."

43. "If we're trying to generate ideas or opinions, I could say, 'Hey, who thinks this is a good idea?' And people would raise their hands, or not—but there's this thing called the bandwagon effect, where if I see a bunch of other people do something I'm more likely to do it."

44. "Instead of asking people to raise their hands, what you might do is say, okay, here's a bunch of sticky notes. Everybody write down what you think of this idea. What's good about it? What's bad about it? We’ll stick those up on the wall, and we’ll cluster them, and we'll do affinity mapping and all that good workshop stuff. And now we'll see that a whole bunch of people think this part of the idea is good. And we’ll see how many people think this part of the idea is bad—so let's talk about that."

45. "It's secret ballots—that's been around forever, right? There's a reason for it. It's because of things like the bandwagon effect."

46. "So you use the structure of how you are going to generate the idea to mitigate bias, rather than saying I'm going to somehow have everyone immunize themselves against bias before they get in the room and have a free-for-all."

47. "We think that if we just say, 'Hey, let's come up with an idea,' we'll come with an idea, and we underestimate how much structure is actually required, because we think of brainstorming and creative activities as these free-for-all things."

48. "There are also idea-generating approaches that can help. One example is the eight-up.

  • Get eight people in a room and ask them a design question like 'How might we do a better job of moving people around?'
  • Then tell them: 'You each have three minutes to come up with three ideas for how we might do a better job of moving people around.'
  • Once those three minutes have passed, all eight people should have three ideas each. You then tell them: 'Great, now turn to your neighbor, show them your three ideas, they will show you their three ideas, take those six ideas and whittle them down to two.'
  • After they’ve done that, say to each pair: 'Okay, show your two ideas to the pair next to you. They’ll show you their two ideas. Take those four ideas and whittle them down to two.'
  • After that, you’ll have two groups of four with two ideas each. You get all eight people together and say: 'Take those four ideas and whittle them down to one.'

"The beauty of this approach is that the loud talkers get muted right in round one. You can see how their influence gets lessened until the end it’s even with everybody else's—and everyone’s DNA is already in that final idea, and as a result they all feel ownership of it. It's a really good idea because it's benefiting from the different lived experience of everybody in that room."

Photo by fauxels / Pexels


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