Over the past few years most of us have been affected by hybrid and remote work in some way or another. Even if you haven’t adopted a hybrid work schedule yourself, odds are you have interacted with someone who has. This shift into the hybrid work model has fundamentally changed the way we work, and while that has led to many positive changes, it also brings with it a unique set of challenges.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, the majority of workers were forced into a remote work schedule. Since this change was nearly ubiquitous throughout the workforce, it created an equal playing field, where no one had to work harder to be recognized simply based on communication style or presence in the office. Now that the world has transitioned back into a state of normalcy some people have returned to the office, while others made their new hybrid or remote schedules more permanent.
It’s important for hybrid employees to feel represented in the workplace, a task that can be addressed by individuals themselves and managers. One way to ease the transition to a hybrid or flexible workplace is to overcome proximity bias quickly and in a sustainable way.
Proximity bias is the idea that preferential treatment is given to those who spend the most time physically close to us. In the workplace, proximity bias can rear its ugly head in a number of ways but is most commonly observed in managers' perceptions of their employees. When business or team leaders believe that on-site employees work harder and are more productive than remote employees simply because they can physically see in-person employees doing the work, that is proximity bias.
Proximity bias is a dangerous thing to have in a hybrid workplace—it damages the reputation of remote employees and can be powerful enough to hinder their professional success and career plans. Another factor that makes proximity bias particularly challenging is that anyone can fall victim to it and (intentionally or unintentionally) promote it.
For example, a team leader who works primarily in the office may inadvertently promote the ideas of their fellow on-site workers over the ideas of their remote teammates. Because the on-site employees spend time working physically alongside one another and the remote worker is only visibly seen during virtual team meetings, the leader could fall under the impression that the on-site employee is a harder or more dedicated worker than the remote one. In this case, the unintentional bias the leader has toward the other on-site worker is powerful enough to negatively impact the work of the remote team member and hold them back from progressing in their career.
On-site workers aren’t the only ones who can feel proximity bias, either. Remote workers themselves are also susceptible to believing in proximity bias. Even though the pandemic revealed that 75% of people are the same or more productive while working from home, remote workers themselves are even capable of falling under the impression that our on-site teammates are perceived as being harder workers and therefore elevated because of this belief.
Thankfully, (unlike hybrid work) proximity bias is not here to stay. It has no place in a productive work environment and can be overcome with intention, training, and by developing a culture of feedback and transparency.
Proximity bias is not only an unproductive belief system, but it also has the potential to manifest in harmful ways. When unchecked, in a hybrid work environment, any worker who adopts a flexible schedule that allows them to work from anywhere other than the office, even part of the time, is susceptible to being affected by it.
When it comes to overcoming proximity bias, the goal is a complete removal of the idea and the creation of an intentional hybrid workplace model that is designed to lift up the voices of all team members, independent of work style. Achieving this takes a combined effort of individual employees and complete departments. By teaming up in a joint effort to eradicate proximity bias, an organization as a whole can make it clear that all employees are treated equally regardless of their work arrangements.
Before you can begin to eliminate a problem, you first need to develop a meaningful understanding of the root and cause of the problem. As we already know, the cause of proximity bias is the human inclination to give preferential treatment to those who are physically close to us.
If you are managing a hybrid team you should begin by identifying opportunities for proximity bias to manifest itself in your workplace, such as in departments with decentralized teams where employees are dispersed amongst a variety of locations. Proximity bias is particularly common among employees who are in roles that require frequent face-to-face contact with those in leadership positions, or those who are scheduled to be in the office during peak hours.
Once you’ve identified the spaces in which proximity bias may arise, you’ll know where to target your strategy and messaging.
Just because proximity bias is a possibility doesn’t mean it affects every workplace. Organizations that have successfully adapted to a hybrid work environment and helped their employees achieve a successful work-life balance may find that proximity bias isn’t an issue for them. However, no matter how stable you perceive your workforce to be, surveying your employees is an important step towards ensuring that the lived experience of your employees matches your perception of them.
Some questions you may want to ask your employees, regardless of if they work primarily in the office or remotely, include:
Once you’ve done a temperature check and determined if your employees feel as though proximity bias plays an active role in your workplace, there are a few different ways you can proceed. For example, if the results of your survey show that the majority of your remote employees are worried about being held back at work due to proximity bias, it would be in your best interest to quickly address the issue in a company-wide statement or through the use of educational materials.
In order to take a proactive approach to orchestrating your hybrid workplace you’ll want to inform your workforce to be on the lookout for proximity bias and be aware of any biases they may bring to the table.
Awareness of proximity bias is oftentimes enough to eradicate it. Because it is often unintentionally manifested, educating your team members on proximity bias will help to begin the process of removing it from your workplace. Ways to educate your company on proximity bias include:
Creating a level playing field for employees starts at the top and is guided by the actions of managers and leaders. Act with intention and implement meeting policies that specify exactly how conversations will happen following hybrid meetings. For example, rather than those in-person attendees lingering and discussing next steps after the monitor for remote attendees has been turned off, make it a standard practice to return to individual workstations and discuss after-meeting ideas in a Slack thread.
Managers—create defined opportunities to discuss professional development with all employees on a regular basis. Taking the time to hear if your employees feel included, no matter their work style, may reveal areas for improvement.
Unfortunately, proximity bias doesn’t just disappear overnight. Instead, the potential for unequal treatment or opportunity across your organization can remain dormant if left unaddressed. To truly eradicate the opportunity for location-based bias to make an appearance, organizations should put systems in effect to continuously monitor their remote and in-person employees and their ongoing relationships with one another.
One way of doing this is to incorporate actionable anti-proximity bias steps that team leaders, department heads, and employees alike can follow in all training materials and in internal resources. Additional steps include providing all employees with a direct contact that they can address their proximity bias concerns to should they feel that they have been affected by proximity bias. Typically, this is a member of the HR department.
Now that you know what proximity bias is and how organizations should be combatting it, let’s take a closer look at what you should do if you feel like you are the victim of proximity bias in your workplace.
The way people work is changing, and it’s not going to look the same for everyone. Be honest with your manager about your goals and how you’re feeling about your current work arrangements. They can’t help you if they don’t know that you’re struggling! Remember that a truly effective workplace requires teamwork.
When you have an issue at work step one for most people is to speak with their manager, but with proximity bias that can be tricky because managers are often the source of concern. If you find yourself in that situation, your first step should be reaching out to your human resources (HR) specialist. Remember, the HR department is there to support employees and you shouldn’t get in trouble for opening a dialogue with them.
One of the most effective ways to combat proximity bias is to invest in the latest hybrid meeting tech that is designed to bridge the gap between remote and in-office employees. If your company has invested in new tools, make sure you are using them! Embracing new technology can feel overwhelming at first, but tools like the Meeting Owl 3 and Owl Bar are designed to be easy to use, even if you don’t have technical experience.
The main thing to remember when navigating proximity bias in a hybrid workplace is that at their core, all members of your organization are on the same team. Whether you see your coworkers in person every day, once a week, or only at company holiday parties, each one is a valuable member of your company and should be treated with equal, mutual respect.
It’s also worth pointing out that remote work isn’t for everyone! Take the time to do an honest assessment of your job responsibilities and identify the work arrangement that is best for you.