The rise of ‘proximity bias’ and how you can tackle it

The new normal

Before COVID-19 altered the world of work irreversibly, remote working was seen as a privilege for only a trusted few to enjoy. There was a pervasive distrust of working from home, with many managers questioning whether employees can truly remain engaged without constant supervision, or if they were really working the hours that they claimed. After the U.K. moved into lockdown, we witnessed a remote working transition from being a rare exemption to becoming the accepted ‘new normal’.

Now, as many of us now transition back to the office, some of our colleagues will choose to remain remote, whilst others may prefer the hybrid model, offering increased flexibility and the potential for higher job satisfaction. However, a consequence of this mode of working is the risk of ‘proximity bias’ – the unconscious tendency for leaders to favour those who work ‘on-site’, over those who are hybrid or fully remote. In relation to our model of inclusion, we want to explore how proximity bias may affect the areas of culture, relationships and decision making. Read on to discover how these biases may manifest, and what leaders can do to tackle them.

Does proximity correlate to productivity?

One of the most tangible effects of proximity bias is the way in which it can impact company culture, which is largely due to the perception that working in-office results in higher levels of productivity. Research shows that one’s silent presence in the office directly influences employer’s perceptions of dedication and work ethic, even after the pandemic has proved that remote working can be just as impactful. This old-school ideology is perhaps best represented by figures such as Cabinet Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who recently insisted that all civil servants must cease working from home, and Lord Sugar, who incensed social media users with his derogatory comments regarding ‘lazy’ remote workers.

As a result of these perceptions, proximity bias will create a less equitable company culture, where remote employees feel deprived of certain privileges as a consequence of being less visible. As remote working increases and we adjust to having less face-to-face contact, trust and communication will also begin to decline. We need to remain wary about this new level of separation; prioritising in-person meetings for important group projects may assist with this, as well as placing an importance on getting to know and onboarding all new hires face to face.

The impact of technology on how we perceive each other

To explore the effect of proximity bias on working relationships, we have to consider the impact of remote technology on how individuals are perceived. Studies show that delays in response when using platforms such as Zoom, Teams or even phone calls, can cause the remote-working individual to be thought of less positively. Technology cannot always be relied upon, and glitches in video or audio are often out of our control. which means that remote workers may suffer from harsher critique from their colleagues.

Conflict resolution also naturally takes longer. There is more room for miscommunication when communicating long-distance, so we may miss key verbal or physical cues. Managers and leaders may be slower to pick up on problems or ‘feel out’ a situation, and naturally when it is harder to identify issues, it is harder to resolve them.

Can remote working cause internal divisions?

Hybrid and remote working will also tend to cause teams to fall more quickly and easily into silos and cliques, with those working in-office forming closer bonds than those working from home. Our research shows that remote workers form stronger bonds with those in the same mode of working, and yet by doing this they simultaneously disconnect from their office-based colleagues. A London law firm recently announced a lower rate of pay for their remote workers, an example of the type of divide that could lead to resentment between different groups.

Managers must stay alert to whether cliques are forming amongst those who work in the office and try to minimise this by regular integrating all members of the team. This could be done by hosting daily or weekly group meetings and creating opportunities for both office and remote workers to socialise together. Leaders should also try to resolve conflict as quickly and calmly as possible; regularly checking in with remote employees enables managers to stay attuned to the needs of all team members.

How managers can minimise proximity bias

The final consideration for leaders when it comes to managing proximity bias, is to explore its impact on key decisions, such as deciding on promotions. Research shows that when someone works remotely, they are often viewed as ‘absent’ from the workplace. Managers may be left feeling as though they don’t have enough evidence to properly evaluate the individual, and in the absence of evidence, we are prone to drawing false or biased conclusions. This poses the question of whether those who work ‘from the periphery’ may be excluded from receiving development opportunities.

To avoid favouring those who work in-office, managers need to remain vigilant and collect performance-based evidence throughout the year, so that they’re not relying on superfluous information. They should also take care to track the output and progress of their employees, not simply time spent at screen.

Remote working is clearly here to stay, and therefore it is important and necessary for managers to be aware of, and learn how to, limit proximity bias. They need the skills to cultivate trust within hybrid teams and support the growth and development of all employees – regardless of their mode of working.

Discover how we can help

Do you have questions about how to manage hybrid teams and limit proximity bias in your organisation? Drop us an enquiry to info@pearnkandola.com, to start troubleshooting with our leadership experts today.

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