During the past eighteen months employees have been navigating the transition to remote work together. Teams have been working to help one another adapt to the work from home lifestyle, and supporting each other during the collective experience of working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. While each of our individual remote work experiences have varied depending on our home lives and personal responsibilities, we were bonded in our daily remote work. With everyone working remotely, the only thing differentiating us from one another were our Zoom backgrounds

With an equal playing field, no one had to work harder to be recognized simply based on communication style or presence in the office. Now, as we approach the return to office, that is all about to change. Because employees won’t all be returning to the office on the same schedule or with the same regularity as one another— 23% of full-time employees are using a hybrid work model and 11% are fully remote— suddenly, employees will be viewed through separate lenses based on where they are working from on any given day.

While a hybrid return to office will enact a variety of changes for organizations that had acclimated to the fully remote way of life, the degree to which this transition derails companies will be up to them. To ensure a smooth transition, 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.

What is proximity bias?

In general, 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 associated with 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 and have to trust that the remote ones are.

This makes proximity bias 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 when compared with their on-site counterparts. Additionally, anyone has the ability to believe in proximity bias and (intentionally or unintentionally) promote it.

For example, a team leader who works primarily in the office may continuously 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 a developing a culture of feedback and transparency.

How to Overcome Proximity Bias in a Hybrid Workplace

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 workplace, 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 an intentional work environment designed to lift up the voices of all team members, independent of work style. To do so will take 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 where they work from on any given day.

Step One: Identify the beneficiaries of proximity bias.

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. 

Start by identifying opportunities for proximity bias to manifest itself in your workplace, such as on hybrid teams or in departments with a large majority of remote workers. Other instances where proximity bias may arise is in favor of those 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.

Step Two: Survey employees on their perception of proximity bias.

Just because proximity bias is a possibility doesn’t mean it affects every workplace. Some organizations may find that after a year of everyone working remotely, the return to office hasn't changed coworker relationships. No matter how stable you perceive your workforce to be, surveying your employees is an important step to ensure that the lived experience of your employees matches your perception of them.

Some questions you may want to use this as an opportunity to ask your employees, regardless of if they work primarily in the office or remotely, include:

  • Do you feel you are affected by proximity bias?
  • Have you ever been impacted by proximity bias?
  • Do you believe yourself and your coworkers are treated differently depending on where you work from each day?
  • Do you believe that on-site workers are prioritized over remote workers?

Step Three: Implement equal employee opportunity policies + processes.

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  eliminating it from your workplace. Ways to educate your company on proximity bias include:

  • Conducting a town hall style meeting on the topic where employees are welcome to share their experiences
  • Distributing  educational resources, informing employees and leaders on the dangers of proximity bias
  • Holding an informational meeting where an outside party educates your workforce on how to properly identify and avoid proximity bias
  • Providing asynchronous educational materials that promote the avoidance of proximity bias, while offering those who have been negatively impacted by proximity bias resources for assistance

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.

Step Four: Continuously monitor your hybrid workforce.

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 your 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 can 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.

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. To ensure that your company makes a graceful transition back into the office, check out these Global Return to Office Strategies and see how your team compares.

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