30 March 2023

Don’t let proximity bias undermine your hybrid working

In the world of hybrid working, is your company recognising the impact of proximity bias?

So your organisation is working hard to become a more diverse and inclusive place to work? It has policies in place to protect against discrimination as legally defined by the countries in which it operates. But in this world of hybrid working, is it recognising the impact of proximity bias?

What is proximity bias?
Proximity bias is the unconscious tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity. It means that leaders make decisions about performance, promotions and opportunities based on familiarity – “face time” – rather than objective criteria.

It’s nothing new – employees working in satellite offices have often highlighted how much they miss out on opportunities in comparison to their headquarters-based colleagues. Moreover, a study back in 2015 in China found that, despite performing better than their office-based counterparts against objective performance measures, remote employees were far less likely to be promoted. However, as hybrid working becomes a reality for increasing numbers of employees, proximity bias is becoming a more common reality.

What impact does it have?
Common symptoms of proximity bias are:

  • Leaders wanting team members to work in the office so that they can see what they’re doing, often driven by a feeling that if the team member isn’t in the office they may not be working.
  • Leaders evaluating the skills and performance of people they regularly see more favourably than those with whom they have less direct contact.
  • Slower career progression for hybrid and remote workers, in comparison to those who are primarily office-based.
  • Project opportunities being offered which are more accessible to office-based employees.
  • People joining a meeting remotely being ignored by those “in the room”.
  • Opportunities to connect with colleagues being held in locations or at times of the day which exclude remote / hybrid workers.
  • Company communications relying more on in-person town halls than a range of communications (written, online, virtual events).

This leads to:

  • A culture where performance is measured by what is seen rather than by what is achieved – a culture where employees feel they aren’t trusted.
  • Further bias against under-represented groups, who are more likely to be remote workers.
  • The organisation not making the most of the talent it has.
  • Lessening morale and engagement from hybrid and remote workers, which makes retention more difficult

How can you deal with it?

  • Recognise it’s an issue: Identify where proximity bias is most likely to occur – whether that’s in particular parts of the organisation or particular organisation processes. Once you understand where bias may be at work, you’re better able to develop strategies to combat it.
  • Ask your employees: If you are regularly surveying your employees, include questions related to proximity bias. They will give you valuable data on what is happening right now and will give you insights you may not otherwise find.
  • Raise the awareness of your line managers: You may already train your line managers in diversity and inclusion; make sure this also covers proximity bias. Like many biases, it’s unconscious and once someone’s awareness is raised, they are better able to change the way they behave.
  • Encourage more diverse ways of interacting with employees: Provide teams with the technology they need to keep in touch and encourage line managers to have informal conversations with remote workers to replicate corridor conversations, as well as more formal meetings. Provide access to company information in a variety of ways, for example an intranet for 24-7 access, online briefings, and meetings to suit different time zones.
  • Review HR processes from the proximity lens: Challenge your recruitment and promotion processes. How “proximity-neutral” are the requirements in your job adverts and project / secondment opportunities? How accessible are training opportunities? How robust is your performance management process in focusing on results rather than presenteeism?

In conclusion
Hybrid working provides a great opportunity for organisations to attract a more diverse range of talent. But to fully capitalise on this requires a culture which recognises the threat of proximity bias within its diversity and inclusion agenda.

TNM Coaching develops leaders to take your organisation into the future, equipping them with the skills to rise to the challenges ahead. Explore our program Leading and Collaborating Remotely  or contact us for a discovery call to discuss how we could support your organisation to make the most of hybrid working.

Written by TNM Coaching


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