A row of four wooden cubes with yellow smiley faces. In the background there is a single wooden cube with a blue sad face, symbolising proximity bias.
Image: © fotogestoeber/Stock.adobe.com

How to stop proximity bias from affecting your workplace

6 Jun 2023

Janet Benson of the Learnovate Centre explores the workplace phenomenon that can negatively impact remote and hybrid working.

Since the beginning of the pandemic and even before it, there has been a huge upsurge in the move towards remote or hybrid working. It has great benefits for both the worker and the employer.

Many employees feel it gives them a better work-life balance and a greater degree of flexibility. Forbes reported late last year that workers with full schedule flexibility report 29pc higher productivity and 53pc greater ability to focus than workers with no flexibility in their schedule.

However, with change can come particular challenges for both the organisation and the employee. Many of these challenges – from isolation and distractions, to lack of collaboration and technical issues – have been discussed in detail over the past few years.

However, an unintended consequence of remote or hybrid working is only recently coming to the fore and that is proximity bias.

What is it proximity bias?

Proximity bias, sometimes referred to as distance bias, is another name for the inherent tendency of humans to favour the people and ideas physically closest and therefore the most familiar to them.

This means that we place greater emphasis and importance on those who are physically closer to us than those we don’t interact with regularly in ‘real life’.

Research suggests that this cognitive bias can have a strong negative effect on team morale and performance.

Proximity bias is both unconscious and insidious and can have a real impact on fairness in the workplace, often leading to greater rewards and even promotions and pay rises for those physically present compared to employees in a remote setting.

‘Employees working remotely may be unintentionally excluded from important meetings’

Employees experiencing proximity bias can become disengaged and demotivated with feelings of demoralisation and apathy. Disengaged employees can lead to greater attrition rates in organisations and reputational damage.

While having a remote or hybrid working arrangement opens opportunities for an organisation to hire a more diverse workforce from a variety of countries, cultures and experiences, proximity bias can lead to a less diverse workforce, losing these valuable perspectives and experiences.

How do you recognise it?

There are a number of ways to identify if proximity bias exists in your organisation. They include leaders rating the work of on-site employees more highly than remote employees (regardless of performance metrics) or if interesting projects or opportunities are being offered to those in the ‘office’ first, or those more visible to leaders in the organisation.

On the flip side, employees working remotely may be unintentionally excluded from important meetings, with no remote attendance opportunity offered to those working at home.

Remote workers may also be viewed as less productive compared to those who are physically present and who can be ‘seen to be working’.

If you are wondering if proximity bias is an issue in your organisation, here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you intentionally or unintentionally favour those employees who you interact with regularly in a physical space?
  • Do you sometimes forget about those employees working remotely and tend to reach out to those closest to you first?
  • What about body language? Do you give preference to in-person attendees at meetings based on body language cues, versus the head and shoulders on the screen?

If you answered yes to some or all of these questions, proximity bias might be an issue in your organisation. But don’t worry, you can do things to mitigate this bias and don’t forget, you are not alone, and no one is to blame for this type of behaviour as video conferencing is still relatively new and, as a society, we are still adjusting to new forms of communication.

What can you do about it?

Firstly, become aware of it.

Think about the questions above and if they apply to you or if you’ve seen this type of behaviour in your workplace. If you feel that proximity bias exists, there are things you can do to rectify the situation and to make your remote workers feel more included. Forcing everyone back into the office is not the solution!

Instead, employ a ‘hybrid-first’ approach by ensuring that all meetings and events can be facilitated in-person and remotely, where possible. Facilitating inclusion synchronously via video conferencing is important and can be complemented by asynchronous activities such as the use of collaborative working tools and shared documents.

This can help everyone in the organisation take part in the decision-making process and feel that their input is valued.

Interactive whiteboards such as Miro or Mural can be extremely useful tools for all employees to add their thoughts and brainstorm ideas, while also helping to facilitate both hybrid and fully remote workshops and ideation sessions.

While the social element of working can be challenging in a hybrid workforce, facilitating social inclusion can help to motivate those remote workers and help them to feel part of the organisation.

While we cannot avoid our innate biases completely, awareness is key to understanding our behaviours and how they impact others. In a changing working world, adapting to change is key.

By Janet Benson

Janet Benson is a lead learning researcher at the Learnovate Centre, which is a global research and innovation centre in learning technologies and the future of work and learning.

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