Alongside returns to office and hybrid work, a discouraging trend emerged in 2021: proximity bias. The majority of knowledge workers are embracing flexible work options, especially with changes caused by the pandemic. But many are worried about their jobs, whether they’ll get promoted, and how they can demonstrate how valuable they are.
One study found that remote employees are less likely to be promoted than employees who come into the office, despite being 15% more productive. More than 44% of remote workers reported worrying that their in-office colleagues would be favored by their boss.
Leadership is taking notice, too – 41% of executives list potential inequities among distributed teams as their top concern. Still, more than 70% of leadership teams work in the office three or more days a week.
As with many aspects of our work environment, the consequences of proximity bias could primarily fall on historically under-represented groups. Women and people of color are the biggest groups of flexible work adopters. In the U.S., 75-85% of Latinx, Black, and Asian respondents report that they’re either doing remote work or hybrid work. Just 67% of white respondents reported the same.
It’s clear that proximity bias is a serious threat to success within companies that offer flexible work options. Let’s take this opportunity to examine how management processes might be biased and how to take action to avoid proximity bias.
What is Proximity Bias?
A relatively new phenomenon in the hybrid work world, proximity bias started popping up in 2021. The definition of proximity bias is the tendency to favor people who are physically closest to them. It’s usually an unconscious cognitive bias, but it can negatively affect hybrid teams.
Proximity bias is usually seen in leadership roles, from executive staff to middle managers. It often leads to in-person workers benefiting from outsized influence and development opportunities compared to distributed workers who aren’t always close to leadership.
The lack of equality influenced by proximity bias leads to a failure to use the full competency of a workforce. It provides unfair advantages like easier access to important information, desirable opportunities for advanced projects, and fast tracks to promotions and raises. All of this is based solely on someone’s physical proximity to their manager. Technology is rapidly changing the way we work. But it’s not enough to eliminate issues like these without action from leadership.
What are some examples of proximity bias?
Proximity bias usually shows up in hybrid and distributed teams. While it may not seem obvious to you yet, clear examples of this phenomenon are actually quite common. We’ve gathered three proximity bias examples from real confidential hybrid employees.
It’s important to remember that these aren’t the only ways proximity bias can show up in your team. These are only three examples. These examples might help you notice where biases could exist on your team, though.
The distributed marketing team
A marketing team is based out of New York City, but nearly a third of the team has remote or hybrid working arrangements. The team manager loves in-person meetings, but this preference makes it so that in-person employees get preferential treatment.
While relationships with this in-person team shouldn’t be discouraged, the remote counterparts of this hybrid team shouldn’t be neglected. Options for the remote team members to participate in these meetings equitably need to be intentionally implemented.
The annual review
Employees are being evaluated for their yearly performance reviews. Executives, who primarily work in the office, have submitted evaluations that rate all of the in-office employees more highly than the remote employees on their hybrid team.
Based on their project management tool and goal metrics, the remote employees actually performed better than the in-office employees. The executives, perhaps unconsciously, favored the in-office employee, despite their lower performance metrics. These executives need to look at the whole picture for evaluations.
The unfair opportunity
With two offices on the East Coast, employees of an architecture firm are allowed to work from home up to 5 days a week. The company prefers their employees to work in the office but notes that as long as their work is completed well, it doesn’t matter how often they come in. One associate, whose desk is near her principal’s office, comes in nearly every day.
She’s offered the opportunity to work on a massive and exciting multi-million dollar project. Another associate who works from home for the same principal didn’t even hear about the opportunity until weeks later and was put on a smaller project alone. This clear example of proximity bias did not provide a fair opportunity for the advancement of all employees.
Why does proximity bias matter?
In the examples above, you can see how proximity bias might lead to favoritism. The consequences of proximity bias can be even more severe than that. Hybrid and remote workers often miss out on opportunities, promotions, advancement potential, and even important knowledge.
More than that, proximity bias can cause lower staff engagement and retention, decreasing productivity and profits. Executives of hybrid workplaces who are practicing proximity bias, whether they know it or not, are making less robust business decisions by only involving onsite workers.
Less informed business decisions lead to lower future foresight and workforce competence. Plus, workforce diversity may decline with proximity bias because more women and minority ethnic groups tend to choose remote or hybrid work environments. Less diversity in a workforce leads to group think, poor problem solving, and lower business resilience.
How to avoid proximity bias
While remote employees can employ tactics to make themselves more visible, avoiding proximity bias is a manager’s duty. Here are six ways managers can avoid mitigating proximity bias on their teams.
Remote-first approach to culture building
If you’re going to use synchronous meetings, always ensure they’re accessible for all employees by using an online meeting platform like Zoom. You can also encourage employees who are in-person to log into the meeting on individual laptops or tablets even if they’re all in the same room. This ensures everyone can see each meeting member’s face and pick up on nuances.
Even if you’ve discussed it in a meeting, open up decision-making. Where can you be more inclusive? Run a poll after a meeting and offer for collaborators to submit their input in asynchronous ways. Wherever you can, encourage a more level playing field.
Introduce more inclusive ways of learning
An asynchronous culture that encourages writing-, audio-, or video-based communication can naturally foster a more equitable environment. Using a central platform like Slack, an intranet, or Loom will naturally have your employees gravitating toward equitable communication both in-office and remotely.
Where your teams primarily communicate can’t be a physical place because it usually results in proximity bias. So, creating a central virtual platform for your employees will help mitigate the bias.
Be intentional about checking in with people outside of your usual group
It seems easier to lean over to someone nearby, chat by the coffee maker, or grab lunch together when you’re in person. It may not feel like it, but you can do these things virtually too!
With a hybrid team, you need to be a bit more intentional. Keep a list of the people on your team or even off of your team that you’d like to keep in touch with. Or, more conveniently, just check who’s in your team’s Slack or Teams channel. Notice who you communicate with the least and try to get some face time with them.
Reach out to them and try to grab lunch or coffee virtually together, ask for their input more often, or simply reach out and let them know you’ve been thinking of them. Any communication is better than none at all. If you’re noticing you don’t communicate much, they probably have too.
Stop relying on synchronous meetings and use asynchronous tools
By developing an asynchronous culture, you can ensure that all employees—regardless of where they work—experience a level playing field. Facilitate multiple inputs via collaborative working tools like Loom, Slack or Teams, intranet, and other multimedia collaboration channels.
Asynchronous communication is better for both in-person and remote employees. Avoiding synchronous meetings can save over 30 minutes just by reducing the effort it takes to context switch for meetings. When you use a video tool like Loom, you’ll still be able to convey subtle nuance, allowing employees to stop overthinking their written messages.
Implement objective performance management
Evaluations of all employees need to be based on actual data and input from multiple sources. It helps to have initial objective goals for employees to work toward so that you can measure their outcomes.
You can also gather information from a few members of their team and those they interact with most. But evaluations should never be based on “output” with no initial criteria, input from only one coworker, or “visibility.”
Talk about it
Lastly, discussing proximity bias is the most important way to confront it. By talking about it, you’ll educate your employees about its existence. Armed with education, your teams will better be able to communicate where it’s happening and make accommodations to change that.
If you don’t talk about it, you likely won’t be able to figure out where it exists in your organization. Start by launching an internal discussion with the executive team to begin uncovering biases within your organization.
How remote workers can be more visible
“Zoom fatigue” can wear on you. But, as a remote employee, the best way to reduce proximity bias is by making yourself more visible. Here are three ways to make yourself more visible while you work from home – or wherever.
Turn your camera on during virtual meetings
It’s tempting to turn your camera off when you’ve been on a lot of video meetings. But research shows that more than 50% of communication is nonverbal. Video conferences or asynchronous video calls are the best way for your coworkers to feel more connected to you. When your colleagues can see your nonverbal behaviors, they’ll better understand you and your efforts.
Try to pace yourself and schedule breaks wherever possible. Notice your capacity for being on video. If that’s three meetings a day, try to advocate for that. If you can’t do that, only turn your camera on for the meetings you’ll benefit from the most.
Another great option is turning off the self-view option once you’ve gotten started. This can help relieve camera fatigue. You’re not vain and you’re not alone! Many of us tend to stare at ourselves.
Stop relying on text-based communication
Asynchronized communication is necessary for keeping distributed teams cohesive. But text-based communication alone isn’t going to cut it when you’re trying to reduce proximity bias. Text removes a lot of personality and 47% of office workers overthink text-based messages.
So, what should you do instead? Send more personalized content using Loom. Loom is excellent for providing project feedback, explaining a project, walking through design ideas, status updates, sharing data analysis, recording your screen, and bite-sized training.
While text-based can often be the default, asynchronous video is much more effective and can easily be shared through text channels like Slack, email, or Teams. Everyone wins when your co-workers can see your screen and your face without having to be in a live meeting.
Ask for advice/network
Okay, you know how to overcome proximity bias in communication, but what about the all-important professional development? Are you missing out on better opportunities because you’re working from home?
The best way to develop closer relationships with supervisors and colleagues who may be in a position to give you different opportunities is through skiing for advice. You might ask to schedule a quick meeting or run a question by them in chat.
Don’t be afraid to reach out. If they don’t have the capacity, it’s their responsibility to let you know. But most of the time, asking for advice can show that you’re being proactive. If you’re in a new role, it’s especially important to find out how you can integrate best as a remote or hybrid worker during orientation.
You can ask about advice for advancing within your company, a brainstorming session for a project you’re working on together, or an informational interview. After your initial communication, be consistent. Keep checking in at respectful intervals to remain top of mind.