A woman with her head in her hand, showing her frustration while sitting at a laptop working remotely.
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Proximity bias: What employers need to think about for remote working

5 Oct 2021

While remote working has many benefits, there are challenges that must be addressed to ensure some employees don’t get left behind.

Workforces all over the world are continuing to grapple with plans around returning to the office, creating an effective hybrid strategy or opting to remain entirely remote.

The benefits of remote working have been outlined many times over by various remote working advocates. Meanwhile, those in favour of a return to offices and workplaces have been talking about the importance of gathering together in the name of collaboration.

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It’s easy to point to either remote or in-office working as a solution to the challenges that come with the other.

Remote working means no more commutes and office politics, but a return to the office could be the answer for those who have no proper workspace at home or those who feel isolated.

However, there are other issues to address as we move forward with the new ways of working and they must be addressed no matter what path is taken. One of these issues is proximity bias.

‘Proximity bias can influence employees’ perceived performance and put some at a disadvantage’
– MARIE KRETLOW

Proximity bias is the idea of giving preferential treatment to those who are physically closest or those we see most often.

For the working world, this could mean those who are in the office more and visible to their managers might be unconsciously given preferential treatment or viewed as harder workers, even if that is not the case.

A Matrix Recruitment survey this week already highlighted that this a concern for workers in Ireland at the moment, with 60pc of respondents worried that remote working could potentially impact their career progression.

This idea was highlighted in a 2015 study conducted in China. As part of a remote working experiment, researchers found that people working from home saw a 13pc increase in productivity. Those working at home also reported greater work satisfaction and were less likely to leave their jobs. But despite all of this, their performance-based promotions fell.

This gives tangible consequences to the phrase, ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

However, as is often the case with unconscious bias, leaders may not realise they have proximity bias. According to Marie Kretlow, people experience and programmes lead at email app company Superhuman, it can also be difficult to spot for employees, especially if they are remote.

“If you are not in the same location as your colleagues, you don’t always have the same level of exposure to team dynamics and relationships that in-person colleagues do, which can impact your ability to recognise if something is off,” she said.

“Employees who not only work remotely but are also distanced by time zone can face greater effects of proximity bias. Without intentional action, these folks may have fewer opportunities to build key relationships across the team or take part in important company meetings purely because of the difference in working hours.”

A complex problem

While this might feel like a problem that is strictly connected to remote working and can be easily removed if everyone is simply brought back to the office, that is not the case.

The appetite for remote working cannot be ignored any longer and, while employers have every right to make their own rules about where they expect their employees to work, surveys over the last 18 months have suggested that those employees may not stick around for long.

While many companies are ironing out hybrid plans in order to get the best of both worlds, GitLab’s head of remote Darren Murph has pointed out that this is a breeding ground for inequality and proximity bias.

While employees might be told they have flexibility and options about when, how and where they work, how leaders choose to conduct their side of the business might show where their preferences truly lie.

Kretlow said unless a conscious effort is made to intentionally create equitable employee experiences, proximity bias can still seep in based on when and where important meetings are held and how decisions are made.

“Without intentionally designing these touchpoints, unconscious proximity bias can influence employees’ perceived performance and put some at a disadvantage,” she said.

“Leadership has to take the first step to ensure everyone is set up for success. Their presence – either remote or in-office – and behaviour set the tone for the rest of the organisation. Leaders must proactively define expectations for the team to ensure the ways in which the organisation works together are equitable for all, regardless of work location.”

She also said that leaders must explain why certain processes and practices are important instead of merely laying down the rules and expecting employees to follow blindly.

“With a solid understanding of this, employees across the team are more likely to champion equitable practices and advocate for their teammates who aren’t physically in the room.”

Correcting proximity bias

While remote and hybrid working can give rise to proximity bias, it’s important to remember that it is still a company culture problem that must be addressed, and not just by bringing everyone back to the office.

If leaders are concerned that proximity bias has seeped into their organisation, particularly in the last few months as we navigate new ways of working, the first step is to diagnose the issue.

“Figure out exactly what is happening and why it’s happening and then, looking through the lens of equity, design a solution that supports all employees, no matter their location,” said Kretlow.

“Instead of trying to retrofit former ways of doing things, this is an organisation’s opportunity to start from scratch with a core set of objectives they want to achieve with regard to how the company operates and how employees are set up for success.”

This might include creating entirely new onboarding experiences, redesigning company meetings and evaluating how each element of the business is run to ensure it complements the new way of working without leaving remote employees at a disadvantage.

It’s also important to minimise the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality. Leaders and managers should make sure that they’re interacting with their employees in equal measure, no matter what time zone or location they’re in.

If you have a lot of meetings with the same group of people, consider those who you have less face time with, be it virtually or in person.

And when it comes to promotions and other opportunities, always take the time to reflect on why you’re selecting certain candidates. Is it because, when measured against everyone else, they’re the best person for the job, or is there a possibility they came to mind first because you see them more often than others?

There are many versions of remote-first and hybrid working plans out there and what works for one company may not work for another. But whichever road is taken, it’s vital that an equitable employee experience is always front of mind.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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