The term ‘presence disparity’ may not mean much to you, but we’ve all experienced it. (It took our friends at Steelcase to name it.) Presence disparity occurs when you call in to a meeting, but you can’t hear half of the participants because they’re speaking too softly or too far from the microphones. It also happens when you’re onsite and the meeting is disrupted by airline announcements from a remote caller’s line. Or when on-site participants refer to shared content, like a whiteboard, that remote callers can’t see.

These are typical interruptions that many people have come to accept as part of working with distributed teams. What they don’t realize is the extent of the affect presence disparity can have on employee morale, productivity and innovation. For companies to truly thrive, they must overcome presence disparity.

In the webcast, Collaborative Workspaces That Work, Polycom’s Amy Barzdukas, vice president, global solutions marketing, explains presence disparity as “the phenomenon when participants experience a meeting differently, usually because they are not physically present.”

Companies are increasingly hiring remote workers as a means of increasing their talent pool, but all too often they fail to give distributed teams the tools they need to leverage and foster that talent to meet business objectives. Steelcase reports that a survey commissioned by Brandman University found that within the 135 large and Fortune 500 companies surveyed, “virtual teaming was mostly regarded as a necessary evil versus a value add.”

According to Steelcase, “Presence disparity is more than just a nuisance. It can undermine the benefits of having a diverse, distributed team and hurt their productivity. When the reality of presence disparity isn’t addressed, the overall collaboration experience can easily become unpleasant and taxing, with participants feeling strained physically, cognitively and emotionally… Distractions abound, workflow gets bottlenecked and misunderstandings, misinterpretations and conflicts escalate. As chaos and frustration ensue, progress slows or gets totally derailed.”

The lack of connection team members feel as a result of presence disparity can be felt in a number of ways. “Most companies hear things on employee polls like ‘We could do better at cross-team collaboration.’ What they may not realize is the extent to which the disconnects caused by presence disparity are drivers in that piece of employee dissatisfaction,” Barzdukas said. In addition to impacting corporate culture, “Individuals or teams may feel alienated or underappreciated, which can lead to the loss of really great employees.”

Best practices for reducing presence disparity

Fortunately, presence disparity doesn’t have to be part-and-parcel of working on a distributed team. With some relatively simple changes, organizations can reduce presence disparity to enable creativity and innovation amongst the most distributed teams.

First and foremost, Barzdukas recommends adopting a high quality video collaboration solution. Giving meeting participants the ability to see each other enables them to connect on a more personal level. They can see each other’s expressions, which enables them to better interpret comments and detect social cues. For example, if a remote worker has an idea during a brainstorming session, a colleague may notice the change of expression and pause to allow the remote worker to speak.

Video also holds participants accountable. On a traditional call, attendees tend to multi-task – checking email, working on slides or browsing the Web. “You hear a lot of ‘I’m sorry, can you repeat that?’ We find that is often code for ‘I wasn’t paying attention,’” Barzdukas said. “On video, people stick with the meeting that’s going on more closely and you can be more productive with less repetition.”

Technology enhancements in video collaboration solutions can further reduce presence disparity. For example, noise-blocking technology can detect and mute a barking dog or a side conversation at the end of the room. The camera focuses on the speaker, and all participants – not just those in the room – can see shared content.

To ensure adoption, the video collaboration solution must be ubiquitous, and they must deliver a quality experience for all users. Putting a solution in a couple conference rooms won’t cut it. Every employee should have the ability to use video from anywhere – be it from their desk, home office or mobile device. And that quality matters: bad video is incredibly distracting, frustrating, and … a key driver of presence disparity.

And, while the solution should be easy to use, some end-user training is also important.

“It can be as easy as simple signage that shows how to start a call, or establishing champions in each workgroup or division who are trained and can then become ambassadors within their group to help spread the word and share best practices,” Barzdukas said.

With these best practices, it doesn’t take long for people to become accustomed to video. They find that they’re more productive and engaged – and the distance between distributed teams begins to disappear.