The unseen influence: overcoming proximity bias

29 May, 2023

As remote and hybrid work continue to gain ground; leaders must learn to overcome their bias towards “visibility”.

Post Covid, companies are grappling between requiring employees to come to the office or allowing them to work from home. Many are trying a hybrid approach.

The debate on the optimal way to ensure both flexibility and productivity continues. This is leading to proximity bias. Employees who don’t have sufficient face time in the office are getting penalized in terms of opportunities, performance evaluations and promotions.

Proximity bias refers to the unconscious tendency of leaders to favour employees who are physically closer and more visible. As an article in the Harvard Business Review points out:

As humans, we intuitively value the contributions that we see, rather than those we don’t — even if the ones we don’t are substantially greater.

This week, my message focuses on proximity bias. In what ways does it lead to favouritism? And how can managers and leaders avoid this bias to create a more equitable workplace for all their team members?

Like any other bias, proximity bias is a natural instinct, a mental shortcut wired into our cognitive process. Physical proximity leads to familiarity, connection, and liking. Isn’t it usually the co-worker who sits next to us who ends up becoming a good friend?

However, when people in positions of power let bias guide the way instead of data, they tend to make inaccurate judgments and poor decisions, which ultimately makes them less effective leaders.

Out of sight, out of mind

Remote employees often have concerns around “visibility” and face time with the boss — and with good reason.

In 2021, a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that almost 70% of managers believed remote workers to be more “easily replaceable” as compared to in-office workers, while 42% confessed that they sometimes forget about remote workers when allocating tasks.

It is no surprise, then, that remote workers get fewer raises and promotions than their in-office counterparts. When managers favour certain team members and exclude others, it plays out in vital areas like performance reviews and advancement decisions.

Employees who are physically present reap an unduly large share of recognition and rewards, along with enjoying easier access to information and more opportunities to work on coveted projects. As observed by a BBC piece:

Leaders may be more inclined to hand an in-person employee an assignment or ask them for input, rather than jump on Slack or Zoom to do the same with someone working from home.

In-office workers also receive preferential treatment in less obvious ways. For example, their poor performance may be excused by managers thanks to the “halo effect” — the tendency to have an inflated view of people who are physically nearer to us.

Meanwhile, employees who work remotely fail to receive the credit, support, and growth opportunities they deserve. Feeling underappreciated and isolated, they are likely to become demotivated over time and may start seeking other pastures.

Proximity-driven favouritism can also cause a trust deficit and spark toxic politics among co-workers by dividing them into two distinct camps — “office people” and “WFH people”.

When biases converge

Proximity bias also tends to sharpen workplace inequities. In general, underrepresented groups show a greater desire for flexible work arrangements. This can be partly attributed to the fact that WFH is psychologically safer, whereas working in an office creates more potential for prejudicial encounters.

Working remotely also reduces the need to “code switch” (altering appearance or behaviours as per dominant cultural norms) and offers the flexibility needed to fulfil childcare or elder-care responsibilities (which fall disproportionately on women).

As multiple biases converge, the workplace becomes increasingly inequitable. Sheela Subramanian, VP and co-founder of Slack’s Future Forum, sums up the cascading effects neatly:

Being “first in, last to leave” and working around the clock has long been a hallmark of performance. Throughout my career, I’ve seen people promoted for their perceived work ethic: hours spent in the office, on the road, or away from their families. And more often than not, those people up for promotion to senior leadership ranks are not women, employees of color, or working moms. Proximity bias is one reason why the corporate executive bench is often homogeneous.

Tackling proximity bias

Requiring all employees to return to the office full-time is not a viable solution to proximity bias. Whether one likes it or not, hybrid and remote work have become a way of life — refusing to adapt to this reality will only hold back your organisation. Plus, it will chip away at hard-won gains in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as employees from marginalized groups will likely be the first to be edged out.

Instead, here are five rerecommendations for managers and leaders to overcome proximity bias:

1. Be aware of proximity bias.

The first step is to acknowledge the bias and understand how it manifests. For example, think about which team members you’ve had a conversation with in the last few days. Then identify the individuals who have been receiving more projects and praise from you. Can you spot any differences in your behaviour and perceptions regarding on-site vs. off-site employees?

With greater awareness, leaders can start to address proximity bias by consciously paying attention to the contributions of remote employees. Instead of employee location, redirect your focus towards deliverables and innovation.

2. Rethink meetings.

Meetings are one of the biggest pain points for remote employees. When most of the team is physically together in one room, and others are joining in virtually, it can be tough for the latter to participate meaningfully. To level the playing field, some leaders have switched to the “if one dials in, all dial in” rule — meaning that if some members needs to join remotely, the meeting is converted to a video-call.

3. Build in face time with remote team members.

To overcome the perils of “out of sight, out of mind”, leaders must carve out opportunities for one-on-one face time with employees who work from home. Scheduling weekly/bi-weekly check-ins is a good way to do this. Keep it low-key: discuss weekly goals, challenges and contributions. The HBR piece mentioned above highlights the benefits of such an arrangement:

The intention behind these meetings is to…ensure that you’re aware of their work, and also let them know that their work is visible to you. Most importantly, keeping track of their goals — both short and long term — will help you more fairly evaluate their performance in a formal setting.

4. Put on your WFH shoes.

Synchrony Financial, a US-based firm, is taking an interesting approach to future-proofing their organization. The leadership team is required to work from home at least one day a week, setting a remote-friendly precedent for the entire workforce. As DJ Casto, the chief human resources officer, explains:

The executive leadership team has a lot of influence on the behaviours of the workforce… If we set the tone at the top of the house to say, ‘it’s OK to work from home,’ and candidly, ‘we’re going to do it, too,’ then it gives people a lot more trust.

Other innovative companies are role-modelling flexibility in similar ways. For example, the CEO of Slack challenged his direct reports to limit their office-time to three days a week, to counter proximity bias. Working from home also helps leaders stay attuned to the obstacles faced by their remote team members. (Of course, most of you must have worked remotely during the pandemic, but that was a different situation with unique challenges!)

5. Establish a writing-based “town square”.

In his article for Forbes, Joe Du Bey (CEO of Eden Workplace), emphasizes the importance of establishing a virtual space where all communications (such as policies, updates, news, etc.) are shared in writing, not just verbally. As he explains:

If you don’t encourage a writing-based culture, you can’t mitigate proximity bias. Use a central platform, like Slack or an intranet system, as the town square for your organization. The town square can’t be a physical place because it often results in important information being shared only among employees who are physically present in the office.

Proximity bias influences the ways in which managers and leaders treat their team members. Without even realizing it, you might be playing favourites and creating a chasm between your on-site and off-site employees. Addressing this bias is critical, as remote and hybrid work continue to gain ground. By fostering an equitable, results-focused workplace culture, you can enable all your team members to deliver their best work and thrive.


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