Workplace

Proximity bias is real. Here's how Prezi is fixing it.

Going back to the office isn’t the answer, but better virtual meetings could be.

Prezi CEO Jim Szafranski

"As simple as that sounds, creating that sense of place and purpose with a digital workspace and branding, those are the key things that we do internally and that we've productized for our customers."

Photo: Prezi

Jim Szafranski, CEO of presentation software company Prezi, started developing video meeting and presentation software Prezi Video as a “hobby project” toward the end of 2019. Then the pandemic hit.

“What was typically thought of as a presentation company suddenly was involved in the virtual work world,” Szafranski said.

Now, Prezi Video accounts for a third of the company’s business, with millions of users and more than 200,000 organizations as customers. Though Prezi was able to shift its focus, Szafranski wanted to get a better understanding of the biggest issues with remote and hybrid work, and what companies could do to fix them.

In a survey of more than 1,100 enterprise workers across the companies it serves, Prezi found that 66% said proximity bias exists in their company culture, favoring the colleagues that make it into the office regularly. But only 8% reported having all of their meetings entirely in person.

“Based on what we observe with our customers, you're still going to have somebody not in the room at most meetings,” Szafranski said. “You're going to continue to need to be cognizant of a remote workforce.”

Szafranski sat down with Protocol to talk about how to beat proximity bias, how working works at Prezi and how to encourage workers to keep cameras on during meetings.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to explore the idea of proximity bias?

What we're trying to do at Prezi is figure out how to make screens work better for people, because this is where work is happening. When the return-to-work conversation started to happen is when proximity bias came into our view as an important thing. People were starting to think, “Video meetings stink,” “I feel disengaged at work,” “I often multitask.” Video meetings weren't working well. We started seeing the potential that businesses were going to use return-to-office as an excuse to not improve video meetings. If you don't make virtual meetings better, clearly people are going to be disengaged and disadvantaged.

Tell me about Prezi’s remote work policy and how you’ve worked in the past couple years.

What we operate under is a virtual-first model and we made the shift to that immediately [after the pandemic started]. Employees were allowed to choose where to work from, and virtual-first means we shifted every workflow, every operation to work virtually. Hiring, onboarding … all the way through to how we run product stand-ups and all-hands meetings. We prioritized the virtual scenario for every operation. We still have office hubs available for when people do want to get together in some locations … But if you look at it across the company, under 20% of the workforce is going in a day or two a week.

Other than Prezi Video, what tools do you use to make those virtual workflows better?

Our tool kit has largely stayed the same: Slack for instant messaging, Zoom for video calls, Jira and Atlassian products for record keeping. The more interesting thing I'd say is the use of them has changed. We put a pretty big emphasis on increasing transparency throughout the organization. We were always a highly transparent organization, but as everyone went home, trying to make sure everyone had the context so that they could make the best decisions for themselves and feel empowered. That's why we went to a weekly all-hands meeting for the company.

We also created a lot of different [Slack] channels. For example, even though it's a virtual-first operation, we still encourage people to get together, but doing so in a way where people don't necessarily feel left out. We have a channel where anytime anyone gets together, they use a channel called “#stay-connected,” where we snap a photo, send it there so everyone knows we met, and we give a little update on what we did.

Demo of a Prezi meeting. Demo of a Prezi meeting.Image: Prezi

How do you level the playing field for remote workers at Prezi?

There are two key things that we're doing to try to make sure we’re not just aware that there could be bias, but have things in place to minimize it. I think one of the first key things is really to make sure there's a high level of participation [in video meetings]. What we really tried to do is to not have cameras off. If you have cameras off, there's no participation. That’s somebody talking at people. I know it sounds so simple, but camera-on was such a key part of reducing bias. We also enable and encourage people to be able to bring content onto the screen.

Another key thing for us is to try to create a sense of place and purpose. Another big problem people have is “I have my camera off because I'm at home, and I don't want people to see my home.” So we allow people to make the virtual workplace feel like virtual work with backgrounds. So as simple as that sounds, creating that sense of place and purpose with a digital workspace and branding, those are the key things that we do internally and that we've productized for our customers.

What does the future of work look like, at Prezi and generally?

The view I have is essentially a more and more globally distributed workforce, tapping talent pools beyond what was originally our four office locations. I think that's going to help all companies. Companies like ours are always in a fight for talent and the more you can be globally distributed, the more you can attract it. And obviously, that also gives you the opportunity to increase diversity. That's the future work for us: as a bigger team, spread out, more diverse, but still connected using our tools and some of our operations.

As we do virtual meetings from different locations, what we've done is we've shifted the place we're working, but I think as we look into the future, we'll also be shifting the time we're working too, through asynchronous work. With more messaging, more recorded videos, I think there's a lot more asynchronous work in our future.

What does the future look like for Prezi Video? Do you expect that to grow?

It's become over about a third of our business at this point, with pretty robust deployment globally. The way we're thinking about the future of the Prezi Video is that it can start actually becoming a guide for how to run meetings. We can have templates for, say, having a brainstorming kind of session. If you're doing a project update meeting, here's how to do a project update meeting. It’ll become more of a visual-templated guide to help organizations do better meetings, track agendas, tasks or action items. I think that's a key part of the future.

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