How to overcome proximity bias in the workplace

Written by Amberlicia Anthony Thane, Consultant Analyst

Proximity bias has become a hot topic and we have been considering the associated implications and advising on how to minimize its impact. As we see people have returned back to ‘normal’ post-pandemic, it is important to acknowledge that the future of work will never again be the same. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that can be universally applied from one organization to another. The workplace will now consist of employees who exclusively work virtually, some on-site, and some hybrid.

While these varied ways of work choices offer a greater level of flexibility that many employees crave, there are some challenges that can arise. One of the biggest potential pitfalls of managing a team with different working arrangements – or even geographical locations – is the growing prevalence of proximity bias in the workplace.

What is proximity bias in the workplace?

Proximity bias is the idea that employees with close physical proximity to their company leaders will be perceived as better workers and ultimately find more success in the workplace in comparison to their remote counterparts. In sum, proximity bias is when leaders show preference toward employees who are in their immediate vicinity.

Why is it important to be aware of proximity bias?

It isn’t difficult to see how the trend of proximity bias originates. We tend to have a closer relationship with those we see regularly versus those that we only see occasionally. And while this is human nature, it is important that leaders become more aware of proximity bias, and especially the negative impact it can have on an organization.

One of the major pitfalls that proximity bias in the workplace can create is accidental favoritism just by the fact that one spends a lot more time with those in closer proximity. This can then lead to managers making decisions about hiring, performance, and promotion based on familiarity rather than objective criteria.

How does proximity bias effect remote employees?

If your work environment is composed of a mix of remote and hybrid/in-person employees, it has the potential to become a breeding ground for proximity bias. Such favoritism could lead to remote workers feeling disengaged, forgotten, and even to begin questioning their potential and career development in the organization.

As such, the feeling of needing to be in the office more often in order to succeed can cause anxiety for those who prefer working from home. While no leader ever wants their team members to feel undervalued, the current job climate where open positions are plentiful and job seekers are in short supply makes it all the more important to have engaged employees who feel appreciated in their role.

How to overcome proximity bias at work in 3 steps

It is important for today’s organizations to be aware of proximity bias in the workplace and its effect on remote employees. That said, it is equally as important for organizations to stay proactive and take action to minimize such behaviors within their workforce.

Here are three simple steps to help organizations prevent proximity bias in the workplace:

1. Have conversations to recognize and address proximity bias

The first step toward mitigating proximity bias in the workplace and its negative impact is to have internal discussions with the executive teams to identify where it may exist within the organization. One example could stem from a lack of inclusive leadership, where you have managers/leaders that prefer face-to-face meetings which excludes remote workers on the team. Recognizing exclusive behaviors allows organizations to address proximity bias directly. In this instance, organizations should facilitate conversations with leaders to help them understand the negative impact in-person meetings could have on a team to ensure their remote and hybrid team members aren’t excluded or neglected. Mitigating these types of tendencies from the start is essential for organizations preventing proximity bias in the workplace and stopping them from becoming a larger issue down the line.

2. Promote equality in team meetings

There are many benefits of effective communication in the workplace. Therefore, it’s crucial for organizations to promote fair and equal team meetings to avoid proximity bias. Some organizations have seen success taking an ‘all or nothing’ approach when it comes to team meetings. One way to do this is to have everyone join the meeting from their own device whether they’re working in the office or virtually. This method holds each team member accountable, provides the same visibility to everyone, and alleviates any potential feelings of an in-office team versus a remote team. It can also build team relationships to increase the feeling of belonging, and as the saying goes, “nobody gets left behind.”

3. Establish and invest in a quantifiable merit system

Having a structured and quantifiable merit system to measure and analyze an employee’s full impact across all areas is important for preventing proximity bias in the workplace. This is particularly helpful during performance reviews as it ensures all employees are being measured by the same standards and competencies. Having this kind of system in place would boost assurance that all promotional and even hiring decisions made by the organization are fair and not the result of leadership rapport.

A holistic example of a good merit system that organizations can implement is a 360 feedback review process. 360 assessments allow management to have a well-rounded view of every team member that highlights their accomplishments and contributions. Given the input of multiple colleagues including peers, managers, and direct reports, it’s a fair system that can help reduce preferential treatment and proximity bias.

By implementing these steps, organizations can create a more inclusive workplace where all employees feel valued and supported in their roles regardless of their working arrangements. In this way, organizations can effectively mitigate the negative impact of proximity bias in the workplace and foster a culture of fairness and equality.

Leading remote teams: new trends and challenges for managers

Remote work is expected to continue to rise even after the recent pandemic subsides.

Three out of four CEOs recently surveyed indicated they will not bring all employees back on site (Gartner, 2020). With this shift, managers will need to understand how to work remotely themselves, as well as how to lead a team with less structure, fewer opportunities to communicate, and collaboration enabled by technology.

Managers are uniquely positioned to help people realize the benefits of remote work by adapting their leadership style to mitigate the potential pitfalls.

This whitepaper takes a closer look at how organizations can focus on hiring and developing managers with the key competencies proven to be most necessary for success when leading highly efficient and productive remote teams.

  • Agility: how managers respond to change and help people handle challenges independently
  • Achievement: how managers adapt their work practices to drive action and ensure accountability
  • Affiliation: how managers overcome the physical distance required to coach others and build a supportive team
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