What Is Proximity Bias and How Can You Prevent It in a Hybrid Workplace?

By

Alice Dodd

·

December 12, 2022

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A challenge that comes up time and time again when employees have the option of remote or hybrid work, is proximity bias.

Hybrid workplaces present the best of both worlds when it comes to working between home and the office. However, as humans, we naturally require a certain level of connectivity and proximity to others – it’s the reason many people prefer a hybrid work environment to fully remote work, which risks loneliness. 

Problems start to occur when this instinct seeps into the hybrid workplace. The result is that people may feel more connected to those they have the most contact with or see the most in the office.

With remote and hybrid working on the rise, it’s never been more critical for managers to be aware of the issues associated with proximity bias, and understand how to overcome them. 

Whether you’ve seen it in your own behavior or noticed a lack of connection between certain members of your team, proximity bias in the hybrid workplace can affect morale, productivity, and even your bottom line. 

The good news is proximity bias can be prevented. You just need to understand what areas of your business it could be affecting, and how everyone can work together to address it.

What is Proximity Bias?

Proximity bias in the workplace presents itself as managers and teammates prioritizing those they are physically closer to. 

It has its roots in the human survival instinct: you trust the people you see most often because you view them as ‘safe’. 

When this manifests in a workplace, however, this results in sub-conscious favoritism of people you see the most or, in a remote work environment, are the closest to geographically. 

Proximity bias could be keeping those in the office more informed about ongoing projects, through to feeling that those in the office are more productive than those working remotely. 

While studies suggest that in reality, those who work from home are more productive, the concerns around proximity bias are not unfounded.

The Society of Human Resources found that negative perceptions of remote workers still remain, with over 67% of supervisors believing remote workers to be more replaceable, and remote workers being less likely to receive a promotion. 

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What are Examples of Proximity Bias? 

If you’re unsure whether your hybrid workplace is experiencing proximity bias, here are three of the most common issues to look out for:

1. Asking for opinions on important decisions from those in the office rather than remote workers

If you’re making a decision and need input from others, the ‘others’ you ask for opinions from shouldn’t be limited to those sitting next to you. 

With so many communication tools available, there is no reason to leave out those you could send a quick Slack or Teams message to. 

However, as it’s easier to simply ask those around you, this feeds into proximity bias, feeding the thought process that those around you have more valuable opinions. 

2. Offering in-person employees more opportunities

There’s little room for impulsive thoughts in any workplace, but it’s even more important to think big decisions through when your team works from different locations.

If you have an upcoming opportunity, every person in your team or office should be given the same consideration. When proximity bias occurs, those working from home are de-prioritized as your first instinct is the people you see most often.

3. Believing in-person employees are more productive

It’s not uncommon when working in the office to have last-minute meetings. While these are usually unavoidable, it means you have a closer view of the workload of certain employees.

Workloads are not conducive to productivity, especially when you are only seeing the output of a small number of individuals. Proximity bias means subconsciously believing that those you have a closer eye on are producing more work. 

How Does Proximity Bias Impact Hybrid Workplaces? 

Proximity bias feeds exclusion and low morale, but it can manifest in a variety of ways in a hybrid workplace.

Remote workers may feel like they are being “forgotten” or overlooked due to their lack of physical presence in the office. 

They might find it difficult to stay informed about what’s happening within their team or organization if there are fewer opportunities for them to engage with colleagues online. 

These factors can lead remote workers to feel isolated and disconnected from their place of work, which could ultimately impact morale and productivity levels. This also increases the likelihood of employee churn, with over 79% of employees who quit their jobs linking it to a lack of appreciation. 

Proximity bias could also result in inequitable job opportunities for those who don’t live near your company’s headquarters. 

For instance, if internal job postings are only listed on an office bulletin, it could limit potential candidates from further away from applying and having access to those available positions. 

This would result in less diverse hiring practices which could exacerbate any existing discrimination issues within the organization. 

Taking steps towards establishing equality amongst all employees will, at the very least, create a more friendly, balanced workplace. At its best, it can prevent discrimination and inequitable opportunity.

So, let’s take a look at how to do it. 

How Do You Prevent Proximity Bias?

Half of the battle with any subconscious thought is recognizing that it exists. 

Now you’ve established proximity bias as a potential issue, here’s how your hybrid workplace can avoid it:

Be Proactive About Checking In

When you’re in the office, how many times do you bump into colleagues in the kitchen? Or exchange pleasantries throughout the day?

Those little check-ins add up. You’re learning more about those individuals and getting to know them better for it. Obviously, this is a positive thing, but it doesn’t need to be exclusive to those in the office. 

Use an instant messaging app to keep in touch with your remote employees; ask how their weekend is, find out how their work is going, and have informal chats throughout the week. 

Providing employees who work from home with more opportunities to talk with you will also build rapport from their side and make reaching out more natural when problems arise. 

Prioritize Remote-First Communication 

If you’ve adopted a hybrid work model, your central place of communication should not be in-person, in the office. 

Use a communication tool like Slack to maintain a consistent form of communication whether at home or in the office and ensure every meeting has a Zoom link as a best practice. 

Getting into the habit of doing this means people will feel comfortable working from home without the risk of being left out. We’ve all had to send a ‘Can you send me a Zoom link’ message to a colleague who’s forgotten to add one to the calendar.

Make it Easy for Employees to See Each Other 

Proximity bias doesn’t only occur when managing people, it also occurs when employees don’t see each other in person.

The easiest way to make sure your team is connecting with one another is by using a tool that allows employees to see who’s in the office and when.

Officely is a desk booking tool that lives in Slack. It enables employees to see who’s in the office, find out what’s happening each day, and book in themselves. 

Managers can send out invites for teams to come in on particular days, and your team can send out announcements if something important is happening in the office that requires attendance. 

When a new employee starts, for example, you can encourage your team to come in and meet them in person. This helps to build connections between team members and prevent proximity bias from the start. 

Build (and stick to) Performance Reviews

Employees in the same role or at the same level should have performance reviews to assess promotions and opportunities.

Having set performance reviews and 1-1s avoids one of the biggest issues of proximity bias – the tendency to put office workers up for promotion more than remote workers. 

If you have a quota that individuals have to meet, you’ll know whether your decision has come from preference and capability. Define responsibilities and expectations at your hybrid workplace so both you and your team are aware of what progression looks like for their role.

Define Your Hybrid Working Policy

The most important thing you can do as a hybrid workplace is to define your hybrid working policy. Unsurprisingly, this also impacts proximity bias as everyone has the same expectations in the workplace, preventing penalization of those who work from home more than others. 

Your hybrid work policy should contain:

  • How many days per week/month/quarter your employees must be in the office (remote-first)
  • How often employees are allowed to work from home (office-first)
  • What software employees must have to maintain communication within the team
  • Health and well-being benefits for all employees, both remote and in-office

If you’re unsure where to get started, you can use our hybrid work policy builder for your own customizable template.

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To Prevent Proximity Bias, Acknowledge It

One of the most dangerous lines of thought when it comes to proximity bias in the hybrid workplace is ‘it doesn’t exist here’.

Burying your head in the sand always exacerbates a problem, and in this case, will lead managers and teams to ignore decisions led by proximity bias. 

The rise of hybrid work and flexibility is one of the most exciting workplace transitions in modern history, however, critique and reflection are critical for it to improve.

Using a variety of tools and approaches to keep on top of proximity bias will keep your hybrid workplace from falling into its trap. 

If you’re a business looking to ensure your employees stay connected, you can join Officely’s two-week free trial today, no credit card required. 

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Alice Dodd

Alice is Officely's content manager. When not spreading the word of Officely and hybrid work, you can find her feeding family, friends and strangers with her latest baking experiment.

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