Virtual work is no longer a perk for high-performing employees. It is today’s normal, and it fundamentally changes the relationship people have with their teammates and employers. It also provides access to a broader talent pool and levels the virtual playing field for all workers.

Talent shortages are fueling the growth of workplace flexibility options, including working from home, making flexible work one of the most sought-after benefits. In fact, since 2005, among non-self-employed workers, working at home has grown by 173%. Almost three-quarters of employees spend one day per week working away from the office, and 53% do so for half the week.

Remote work is also equalizing access to work opportunities, particularly for people with disabilities, many of whom can’t easily commute or would otherwise benefit from the flexible hours often provided by the virtual workplace.

Online educators must prepare these employees to thrive in an increasingly networked, virtual workplace. However, access can be a double-edged sword for people with disabilities, many of whom lack the ability to travel and can’t afford the internet access and technology required for online learning. Employers, universities and communities can help cross this invisible digital divide by providing devices and internet access.

The Impact of Distance Bias

Once learners have access to online training, it’s important for learning and development (L&D) professionals to ensure an equitable and inclusive learning environment. Otherwise, what should be a great leveler becomes yet another obstacle.

We live in a diverse world full of conscious and unconscious biases. Online, we are even further apart, crossing time zones and connecting asynchronously, making it easy to feel isolated and excluded. In other words, out of sight does, in fact, lead to out of mind.

An unconscious bias first defined by David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute, distance bias causes prejudice and discrimination based on our brain’s “cave dweller” tendency to think that the people who are closer to us in space or time are more important than the people who are further away. The closer people are to us, the greater importance our brains automatically assign to them.

Many managers still have a bit of the caveman brain. They resist leading virtual teams because of this unconscious bias, believing that they cannot develop high-trust relationships without in-person connections. Unfortunately, their distance bias can create inequitable access to work and learning for people with disabilities and other employees for whom remote work creates better opportunity. Organizations moving to flexible, activity-based work environments must reduce the impact that unconscious distance bias has on productivity and retention.

Creating an Inclusive Online Classroom

Many remote learners find it difficult to fully engage, and already marginalized populations, such as the disabled, may find it even more so. Most of us have a strong desire to be included, but remote employees may not know how to make that inclusion happen.

The online classroom is the perfect place to bridge distance and learn how to communicate effectively online. Virtual trainers and educators are also well positioned to model intentionally inclusive behaviors. They set the tone for class and can help learners become comfortable collaborating with and helping online classmates. In this way, they can help learners become virtually “visible” so that they trust their teammates to have their “backs.”

Online learning can help learners gain practical virtual team experience that will improve performance and employability for everyone, especially learners who require a flexible workplace. Here’s how:

Teach Digital Communication Skills

Include live breakout sessions where everyone has the opportunity to lead a conversation or report back to the rest of the class. Use icebreakers and “getting-to-know-you” exercises to connect learners with each other, and begin sessions with individual check-ins, with learners calling one each other to speak next.

Require Peer Learning

Have teams analyze case studies and make recommendations together. Enable multiple types of assignments, such as audio and written responses. Use “likes” on discussion boards, being consciously fair and generous with your positive feedback. Watch for like-minded biases or for learners who don’t “stand out.”

Groupwork forces learners to engage with diverse classmates. Structure online assignments and peer interactions in ways that help online learners feel connected, develop team competencies and hold themselves collectively accountable for team assignments.

Once teams form, help them develop agreements that build trust and provide structure for their workflows. Provide reflection activities that pay conscious attention to virtual communication and project management practices. Have teams provide ongoing and frequent feedback to peers and to the trainer. The trainer’s feedback should focus on both learning outcomes and learners’ teamwork skills.

Encourage Diverse Thinking

In discussions, encourage diverse thinking, and push learners beyond preconceived notions and unconscious biases. Have groups identify shared takeaways that include collective perspectives.

Online educators have the responsibility of helping everyone avoid unconscious bias and providing critical access to learners who previously had none. The sooner we intentionally consider and remedy the extra burden placed on the working disabled, the sooner we will see increased opportunities and exponential impact.

By making education and work better for individuals with disabilities, and by consciously bridging virtual distance, we change everyone’s minds — literally — and help the networked workplace become accessible for everyone.