With hybrid working becoming the norm in today’s workplaces, more employees have the freedom to choose how often they go into the office. This sounds great on the surface, but like anything, comes with its own set of challenges. One such challenge of hybrid working is proximity bias–the potential inequity between remote workers and on-site employees in a hybrid working environment.
Proximity bias is the notion that workers who work on-site are favored over remote workers. It’s not a crazy assumption–it’s natural that bosses could gravitate towards people they see more in person. Due to this unconscious bias, these on-site workers may enjoy several advantages over remote workers, including being given a promotion.
What are the dangers of proximity bias at work?
Employees who build better relationships with executives may have better access to promotions and other perks, leaving those who work predominantly from home behind. The BBC reported that remote workers were proven to be 13% more productive than traditional office workers, but that they were still not offered promotions at the same rate.
Working remotely can lead to an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Supervisors don’t see all the hard work that goes into a final product when it’s done at home. When the hard work is happening right in front of them, however, they’re more likely to reward it.
If the policy on paper states that staff can work how they choose, is it fair that this choice may come at the cost of promotions or pay rises?
Sharing an office space can make building peer bonds easier, whereas having limited access to that common space could leave workers feeling unseen and excluded. There’s a powerful sense of belonging and a system of social politics that often comes with seating arrangements, be it in the office, at school or a cafeteria.
To quote Mean Girls, ‘You can’t sit with us!’....
We’re all adults here, but the reality of feeling that you don’t really know your team as people and worse, thinking you’re the only one, affects how you feel about your workplace.
A Harmful Example
If senior leaders are the first to return to the office, it can send a message that office time equates to the perception of your dedication to work, and even that it’s a way to hasten your progression in the business compared to others.
Compensation Leads to Burnout
To counteract the negative perception related to lack of office time, employees may compensate by overworking with extra hours. This is a slippery slope for work-life balance and could lead to the very real threat of burnout.
Zippia conducted a study on burnout in remote workers since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The study found that 86% of full-time remote workers experience burnout, 67% of remote workers feel pressure to be available all the time, and 45% of remote workers reported working more hours remotely than they did in-office before the pandemic.
With so many employees affected by burnout, their work performance could start to suffer, or they could feel more and more isolated from the company.
What’s Really Equal?
It’s imperative to make sure all employees have access to the same perks, but with remote work that gets tricky. If a business offers on-site lunch for their staff, should a stipend be provided for remote employees to order their own lunch? If such a stipend isn’t offered, it poses a threat to equality. Remote workers are paying for their own lunch, while office workers receive lunch for free from the business.
So, what can we do about proximity bias? We don’t have to abandon all hope–here are our best suggestions to combat proximity bias.
Show ‘Remote Solidarity’
There are many ways to do this.
- Log on to meetings virtually, no matter where you are
- Check in via message and video call with remote members of your immediate team
- Make it a priority to catch remote workers up on anything shared in-office, and loop them into any work social occasions
Ensure leadership is setting the right example
Leaders and executives can prove that it's ‘okay’ to work from home. Consider making one WFH day a week mandatory for senior leaders, so that members of your team see that it’s okay to use their WFH time and don’t feel guilty for doing so.
Make promotion structure undisputed
When promotions are left only to intuitive judgments by leadership, there is room for bias to influence the decision. Establish clear criteria for promotions within your team, and guarantee that promotions will be given when that criteria is met. This resolves any issue of favoritism in your promotion structure and safeguards against leaving remote employees behind.
Unconscious bias training
Like any bias, proximity bias is a natural and often unconscious instinct. We can make snap decisions to include certain people in meetings and other situations because they are a familiar face, or are simply there. Training in unconscious bias awareness is available from various sources online, and can help your leaders to be aware of and check their potential proximity biases (and others!).
There are a multitude of ways to combat proximity bias even beyond those listed above. In the world we live in now, there are many different working formats, so it’s up to individual companies to analyze what works best for them and their employees in ensuring their culture is inclusive for all workers. Ultimately, you want to be sure that all employees feel like a vital part of your culture, whether you see them every day or have only ever met them on a Teams call!