May 3, 2022
Prioritising in-office employees over remote workers can waste talent or discriminate unfairly. We review some of the key ways proximity bias can be overcome.
There can be no doubt that we’ve entered a new world of work. Hybrid working is the new normal for many, while a large contingent have taken the leap to fully remote positions since the pandemic.
Things are, however, a long way from settled. Chief amongst many professionals’ concerns, it seems, is ‘proximity bias’.
What is proximity bias? According to SHRM, it’s “the tendency for people in positions of authority to show favouritism or give preferential treatment to employees who are closest to them physically.” It’s a natural bias, and one that can be hard to overcome.
Proximity bias is playing out as a major issue in the modern workplace. 41% percent of executives surveyed by Future Forum cited the potential for inequities to develop between remote and in-office employees as their top concern.
What’s the problem with proximity bias?
Depending on how you view remote work, it might seem entirely acceptable to prioritise those who choose to show up to a workplace. Surely they should enjoy some benefits for their commitment?
This argument, though, overlooks the fact that remote workers are often more productive. 83% say they operate at the same or higher productivity levels when working from home. Plus, remote work has been shown to improve happiness, mental health and work-life-balance; benefits that many exceptional employees would surely seek out.
As ever more professionals demand to work from home, deprioritising remote workers could therefore have an extremely detrimental effect on overall performance.
Additionally, proximity bias could further exacerbate existing issues of inequality. For example, women are more likely to work remotely, as are parents.
How can we overcome proximity bias?
Overcoming proximity bias will be necessary if we are to effectively manage the change to a hybrid working world. Here, we’ve reviewed a few key ways to take a proactive approach.
Solution 1: Start With Awareness
As with any cognitive bias, a key first step is to recognise it and understand when we are making errors of judgement. Ali Shalfrooshan of PSI Talent Measurement International calls proximity bias “a mental shortcut”, cautioning that it can result in “decisions are based on biases rather than knowledge or data.” Companies should prioritise ensuring that managers are aware of proximity bias and that they are supported to deliver fair and equal working environments regardless of location.
Solution 2: Show Leadership, Remotely
Organisations whose leaders spend all their time in head office are sending a clear signal that remote work and leadership don’t mix. Instead, leaders can choose to operate remotely themselves one or two days a week. This small step can show solidarity with a growing contingent of the workforce and demonstrate that leadership can be conducted from any location.
Solution 3: Upgrade Your Technology
There’s nothing worse than a dodgy connection for throwing up communication barriers. Reliable, high quality communications tools are essential for the inclusion of remote workers and critical in overcoming proximity bias. To ensure effective hybrid meetings, many companies have upgraded in-office technology to better facilitate conversations between those in offices and at home.
Solution 4: Be Systematic With Meetings
Remote workers often report feeling excluded from projects or conversations; a clear form of proximity bias. Whilst casual in-person interactions are highly valuable, team leaders need to be systematic with their meeting scheduling to include remote staff, and particularly those on flexible schedules. Scheduling regular 1-to-1’s is also a great way to replicate the benefits of in-office ‘small talk’.
Solution 5: Commit To 100% Remote
This one’s certainly not for every company, but one way to eradicate proximity bias is to do away with proximity altogether. Companies like Github operate an ‘all-remote’ policy, with no offices anywhere in the world. This policy immediately levels the playing field for all employees and eradicates any sense of a two-tier workplace.
The Modern Workplace: No Place For Proximity Bias
Proximity bias has no place in a fair and equitable modern workplace. Overcoming it, though, will undoubtedly prove challenging; the natural urge to prioritise those closest to us is strong.
By adopting a few simple strategies, proximity bias needn’t hinder the progression of remote workers, who have an incredible amount to offer.
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