As more workplaces adopt hybrid work models, organizations and HR professionals will need to make a more concerted effort to recognize and mitigate proximity bias. This article explores the nuances of proximity bias, its impact on flexible workplaces and general mitigation strategies.
What Is Proximity Bias?
More professionals are recognizing that such a cognitive bias does, in fact, exist. A 2023 Executive Network report found that 62% of HR leaders and 70% of business leaders agreed there is likely proximity bias toward the in-person workforce. A key driver of proximity bias is the assumption that people are more productive in an on-site work environment than at home or other remote locations.
Those on the receiving end of proximity bias may feel neglected or not appreciated or valued in the workplace. They may also receive less support and miss opportunities that their peers receive. As a result, these employees may be discouraged and less engaged than other employees. In today’s tight labor market, employers can’t afford to lose remote and hybrid workers due to proximity bias or resulting poor workplace culture.
Proximity bias can occur at all levels of an organization—including in companywide offerings from leadership and the HR department as well as in interpersonal relationships among supervisors, managers and employees. Consider the following examples of proximity bias:
• Providing on-site employees with access to better perks
• Offering learning and development opportunities to on-site employees
• Giving bonuses to on-site employees
• Excluding remote employees from important meetings
• Evaluating on-site employees’ work more highly than remote workers, regardless of objective performance metrics
• Assigning on-site employees with the most interesting, critical or high-visibility projects and tasks
• Discouraging remote employees to speak up during meetings
Supervisors and employees may not realize they are giving preferential treatment to on-site employees, so it’s crucial to be aware of situations where bias can occur. Then, employees can make a conscious effort not to treat others differently based on their work location.
Organizations embracing hybrid work must establish systems, policies and training to account for proximity bias. As such, employers could consider the following strategies to combat proximity bias in the workplace:
• Adopt a remote-first communication approach. Whether companywide or on a team level, digital and asynchronous forms of communication should be the default method. Asynchronous communication (e.g., emails and messaging apps) doesn’t happen in real time, and the sender doesn’t expect an immediate response. If one person is working remotely, everyone should act as if they are as well.
• Train employees about proximity bias. Awareness can be half the battle. Once more employees—especially supervisors and managers—are aware of this workplace bias, they can make conscious decisions and efforts to foster an inclusive and fair work environment throughout the workday.
• Reframe the conversation about working locations. Adopting an “excellence from anywhere” strategy can help employees focus on the deliverables and business objectives rather than how or where they work. Alternatively, some organizations have adopted a remote-first approach and require all employees to work remotely at least one day a week, lessening the pressure to work on-site.
• Encourage the use of video. Many people have experienced “Zoom fatigue,” but there is value in video conferencing during virtual meetings. When employees are on camera during meetings, colleagues and managers can see nonverbal behaviors. Not only does this help the meeting group communicate more effectively, but it can also help people get to know others better. Video can help create a perceived proximity.
Ignoring proximity bias doesn’t mean it simply goes away. Addressing and eliminating workplace proximity bias will require organizations to rethink how they approach remote and hybrid work.
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