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How to Overcome Proximity Bias in Remote and Hybrid Work

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Remote and hybrid work seem to be the new normal of working life. But that brings its own challenges. Employers and employees must strive to ensure they've got a workplace where everyone thrives regardless of their approach to work.

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Working from home can lead to proximity bias challenges. (Image source: Envato Elements)

In this article, you’ll learn about proximity bias as one of the challenges of working remotely and how to avoid it so your workplace works for everyone.

What Is Proximity Bias?

Let's start with a proximity bias definition. Proximity bias means that we tend to favor people and ideas that we're familiar with over those who we aren't familiar with.

In the workplace, it relates to the fact that those who are in close contact with others in the company, especially leaders, get more influence and opportunities than those who aren't, or who may be fully remote. 

For example, this may affect men or women working from home in the following way. Say Grace and Andi are both working for the same company. But Grace is working from home and Andi is working in the office. Andi may be the first to hear of a new promotion opportunity. Because Andi is in the office, the leadership might be inclined to send the opportunity her way, even if both Grace and Andi have performed equally well. This leaves Grace out of potential opportunities, which is totally unfair.

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With more workers working remotely, companies should work to cut proximity bias. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Similar examples of proximity bias in the workplace are seen in offices everywhere, and it's one of the main disadvantages of remote work. The issue has come to the fore now, as both hybrid and remote work have increased following the COVID-19 pandemic. Stats published by SHRM show that 40% of workers list proximity bias in the workplace as a major concern. There's a big discrepancy between what employees want (more remote work) and what their leaders and managers want (more control over employees' presence).

But the fact is that the way we work has changed, possibly for good. Remote work helped many businesses ride out the worst of the pandemic. Since employees have been able to enjoy the flexibility of working from home, along with other benefits, many have said they don't want to go back. 

A FlexJobs survey assessing the remote work impact shows that 69% of men and 65% of women feel that better remote work policies improve gender equality for women. But in relation to the disadvantages of working remotely, 20% of men and 13% of women say that remote work may have affected their chances for promotion. 

Also, the survey reveals that despite the risk of proximity bias, remote work is now a deal breaker for many employees. FlexJobs says for 69% of men and 80% of women, remote work possibilities are major factors when searching for new employment. Plus, 52% of men and 60% of women would look for a new job if not allowed to work remotely.

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Surveys show that remote work is still extremely popular. (Image source: Envato Elements)

A similar survey done by the Office of National Statistics in the UK found that 35.9% of people worked at home in 2020. But proximity bias was still a factor, as those who did work from home were 38% less likely to have gotten a bonus. That survey found that remote workers often ended up doing more unpaid labor but needed fewer sick days. 

What's the Impact of Proximity Bias?

Proximity bias for hybrid work or remote work can affect both workplaces as a whole, and individuals. Let's start by taking a look at the individual impacts.

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Working remotely can have drawbacks. (Image source: Envato Elements)

1. Proximity Bias: The Remote Work Impact for Individuals

Here are some of the negatives that affect men and women working from home:

  • Missing important communications or meetings. If these are talked about in passing in the office, or around the water cooler or coffee machine, then someone who isn't there won't have a chance to hear about what's going on. They'll be out of the loop. 
  • Less chance of networking with others. A lot of this tends to happen in person, and so those who aren't on-site can be sidelined. 
  • Mentoring opportunities are reduced. Again, some of this happens informally during chance encounters during the workday. Those who aren't on-site can miss out on this.
  • In some cases, individuals who aren't present in the office may face harsher evaluations because of the assumption that they aren't working as much. This is in spite of stats showing that the opposite is true. The UK Office of National Statistics survey cited earlier shows that remote workers do more than six hours of unpaid overtime compared to 2.6 for on-site workers. 
  • Because of the tendency to favor presenteeism (which is what it sounds like, the opposite of absenteeism), people who work from home, either remotely or on a hybrid basis, may be overlooked for promotions and raises. Also, they're less likely to have their voices heard. 
  • Time zone differences. For companies working across different time zones, those who are working in time zones that aren't the ones at the main office may find that there are difficulties for them as well. 

2. Proximity Bias: The Remote Work Impact for Companies

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If left unchecked, proximity bias has serious drawbacks. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Now, here are some of the disadvantages of working remotely from a company viewpoint:

  • Ignoring or overlooking talented people who work remotely just because they happen not to be in the office or come to a particular manager's attention. 
  • Related to that, not making the most of the skills and capabilities of all the employees, and focusing only on those who are most visible, in the office. In both these cases, the company is missing out on talent. 
  • Ignoring some employees can also lead to poor morale, which has a knock-on effect on productivity and can hurt the business. 
  • Since hybrid and remote work has become so important to people, workplaces can suffer with a reduced retention rate. People prefer opportunities where they're allowed to work remotely AND get the proper recognition for their efforts. 
  • Workplaces affected by proximity bias are less inclusive, as employees with specific needs, such as those who are neurodivergent, disabled, have a chronic illness, have childcare needs, or wish to avoid microaggressions, may not feel able to work remotely.

Overall, those who can benefit most from flexibility may find they face the most disadvantage.

How to Identify and Overcome Proximity Bias in Your Workplace 

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If you're aware and take the right steps, you can overcome proximity bias. (Image source: Envato Elements)

We've seen some of the disadvantages of working remotely for men and women working from home. There are several disadvantages for companies, too. If you want to mitigate against proximity bias and make your workplace more equitable for all, there are several approaches you can take:

1. Develop Remote Leadership Skills

First of all, brush up your leadership skills for remote teams. Think about what you need to do to give all your employees the best possible experience, whether they're working in-person, in a hybrid fashion, or totally remotely. Use our tips on managing remote teams as a starting point.

2. Create a Remote-First Culture

Rather than have remote employees left out, change your culture. Make it remote-first, so everybody is treated equitably, whether they happen to work remotely or not. In a remote-first culture, working remotely is the default. All your processes are designed to make everything run smoothly while working remotely.

3. Have Regular Check-Ins

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Check-ins are a good way to mitigate the effects of working remotely. (Image source: Envato Elements)

One way to avoid proximity bias in remote work is to institute regular virtual check-ins for everyone. This ensures that employees are kept in the loop, whether they're in the office or not. They'll also have the chance for those informal chats that can lead to mentoring and promotion opportunities.

4. Schedule Meetings at the Right Time

To avoid proximity bias in remote work, schedule your meetings when most people can attend. This cuts down on time zone bias and allows flexibility for remote workers. For example, in North America, scheduling meetings during late morning to early afternoon Eastern time can work for people in many time zones.

5. Implement a Document Culture

One of the most effective approaches I've seen to minimizing proximity bias is implementing a document culture in your office. That means key information for meetings and initiatives is written down. Anyone who can't attend a meeting live still has access and can give input.

Back that up by having a central repository for this information with a naming convention that makes sense. So, everyone can always find what they need, no matter where they're working from. 

6. Use the Right Communication Tools

Back up your document culture by using the right communication tools. An asynchronous chat tool like Slack is useful, for example. You can also hold all meetings via an online video meeting tool so there's no bias towards people on-site and against those working remotely.

7. Streamline Processes for Evaluation and Promotion

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Remote workers may be less likely to get promoted. (Image source: Envato Elements)

As part of eliminating proximity bias in the workplace, it's important to assess your processes for handing out assignments, evaluating employees and promoting employees. Make sure that you aren't falling victim to presenteeism or proximity bias.

Having clearly defined guidelines that everyone is expected to adhere to will help with this. You can also train leaders and managers on bias so they can learn to eliminate this in their assessments of remote employees.

8. Give Remote Workers Chances to Shine

Along with this, explicitly encourage and make opportunities for remote workers to be heard in meetings, to share their ideas, and to apply for opportunities. And set up remote networking opportunities, both one and one and in groups, to allow for informal interactions to take place. You may at first have to encourage this explicitly till it becomes more normal.

9. Use Presence Equity

One way to avoid proximity bias in remote work is to use presence equity. This ensures that every employee gets the same priority and consideration, whether you're thinking about collaboration, technology, promotions or any of the other aspects of office life. Learn more about presence equity from Reworked.

10. Use the Excellence From Anywhere Strategy

Another similar strategy is the excellence from anywhere strategy. This means creating a shared culture that allows people to use the form of work that works best for the roles that they have, as long as they deliver what's needed.

Examples of Companies That Avoid Proximity Bias

Here are a few examples of companies that have worked to cut proximity bias out of remote and hybrid work:

  • Applied Materials adopted the Excellence From Anywhere approach, along with virtual coworking to minimize proximity bias while allowing networking to happen.
  • Synchrony Financial requires every employee to work from home at least once a week to reduce presenteeism.
  • Slack has implemented flexibility, with a block of core hours where employees should be available for any necessary meetings.

Learn More About Remote Work

With more workers favoring the flexibility of remote work, it's a great idea to learn how to do it effectively. The following articles will help:

Avoid Proximity Bias in Your Remote Work Environment Today!

We've seen that proximity bias is one of the major challenges of working remotely. Men and women working from home can find they've got fewer opportunities and less of a voice compared with those who are in the office.

But you can mitigate these disadvantages of remote work by working actively to eliminate proximity bias in your workplace. Over to you to try some of the tips we've shared to make your workplace work better for remote employees.

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