Perhaps the biggest shift in organisations over the last few years has been the fast adoption of remote and hybrid working. While the pandemic accelerated the shift of remote working, it is a development that is set to stay, with 97% of people surveyed saying they want to continue working remotely regularly.
Despite the benefits and appeal of remote working, it has come with its challenges for both employees and employers. One challenge that is becoming increasingly prevalent is proximity bias.
What Is Proximity Bias?
Proximity bias is the unconscious or accidental proneness to offer preferential treatment to those in the immediate vicinity. In career terms, this means workers in the office may be more likely to receive promotions, opportunities and exciting projects. People working remotely may be overlooked by leaders in favour of those that are nearby.
While people want to avoid bias, proximity bias is a natural and cognitive instinct. Evolutionally, we make decisions design to keep us safe. This safety typically comes with those we are closest to, whether emotionally or geographically. The closer in physical proximity we are to others, the more likely we are to give preferential treatment, however unintentional, unconscious or unwise.
Proximity bias occurs in all walks of life; however, it is easy to see this ‘favouritism tendency’ play out in the world of work. For example, you may feel closer to the colleagues you regularly sit closest to or interact with more regularly.
Proximity Bias And Remote Working
As we adjust to greater levels of remote and hybrid working, we begin to see more evidence of proximity bias playing out, despite not being a new phenomenon.
Studies have shown that leaders can often excuse poor performance of those in closest proximity. Furthermore, a particular study in China found that remote workers performed better than their in-house counterparts but frequently lost out to in-house staff for performance-based promotions.
The UK Office for National Statistics also found that remote workers were 38% less likely to receive a bonus than their colleagues who never worked from home.
Research about how remote workers experience proximity bias found that they:
- Don’t feel as appreciated or valued
- Receive less support
- Miss opportunities their in-house colleagues receive
- Can feel neglected
- Are demoralised and lose engagement
Further evidence is that remote workers typically complete more unpaid overtime and have a lower sickness and absence rate. Some suggest this is the remote worker having to work longer and harder in order to ‘make up’ for their physical absence.
How To Address Proximity Bias
It is so easy to snatch a quick conversation with a team member during a coffee break or head over to someone’s desk. These connections are seamless, but they may mean leaders are missing out on building those key connections with remote workers. Running regular virtual meetings can help to create a level playing field for all members of staff. This means regular check-ins with everyone at the same time, rather than a meeting room for in-house colleagues and a virtual meeting for remote workers.
Even if the majority of the people are in the office, having everyone tune in via their own screens can help to create a universal front.
One of the biggest things that organisations can do to address proximity bias is to recognise it. All organisations hope to create a culture without bias but recognising or being open to the fact there may be a problem can help show a commitment to equality across the organisation.
Leaders may choose to reflect each month on the conversations they’ve had with their colleagues and the people they’ve had less interaction with. It may also be wise to start an objective record of the projects awarded to which individuals and whether there are trends in who receives praise, work and promotions and if these are the people leaders spend more time connecting with.
The hybrid workplace can be successful for everyone. However, there needs to be honest conversations about how everyone experiences hybrid work with a hybrid workplace. Regular surveys and conversations covering the emotional aspect of the hybrid setup can be essential in finding out whether workers feel included, supported, and acknowledged.
Asking teams what a good or ideal work setup would be can help leaders spot links to the issues that workers experience. Supporting honest conversations, letting people vent their frustrations, and allowing people to virtually raise their hand can help you continuously improve the workplace and ensure you’re getting the best out of your workforce.
Many organisations have adopted a hybrid setup in order to promote their inclusivity. However, inclusivity doesn’t stop there. Inclusivity remains an ongoing practice, and regularly checking in to reflect on biases can be a vital step in eliminating proximity bias from your organisation. By following an inclusivity-first approach, you can create a culture without favouritism or overshadowing and make sure everyone in the organisation feels seen and recognised.
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