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Does Your Company Have Proximity Bias?

February 17, 2022 Collaboration and Productivity
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

Shifting to remote work has proven to be beneficial for many companies. And in some industries, there's consensus building that companies will either remain fully remote or move to a hybrid model.

While a hybrid structure seems like a great compromise, a top concern for companies that choose to go that route is the inequality between on-site and remote employees — or what's known as proximity bias.

So, how can leaders identify proximity bias in their organization and course-correct as needed? Here are three tips to help.

What Is Proximity Bias?

Proximity bias is the tendency to give preferential treatment to people in the immediate vicinity. In a hybrid workplace, this typically refers to differences in leaders' attitude, often unconscious, toward employees working from home and those working at the office. 

Jim Sullivan, CEO of Grafton, Mass.-based recruiting agency JCSI, said the proximity bias phenomenon in a hybrid environment often results in fewer check-ins and follow-ups for remote employees. “Those who are working from home, or not in an office space, are oftentimes ignored or not responded to as quickly,” he said. 

With proximity bias, not only do remote employees tend to be forgotten or cast aside, but in-office workers are also likely to receive more benefits.

“Such benefits could include faster promotion, more desirable projects or more timely or relevant information flow that makes it easier to succeed in one’s role,” said Joe Du Bey, CEO and co-founder of hybrid workplace software company Eden Workplace

Such favoritism of in-office employees can make remote workers feel disengaged and dispirited about their potential career development at the company. In addition, without consensus as to how much time hybrid employees are expected to spend in the office, it can cause anxiety for those who would rather work from home. However, there are things leaders can do to help avoid proximity bias. 

Related Article: 4 Tips for a Successful Return to the Office

3 Tips for Creating a Fair Hybrid Work Environment 

1. Focus on Presence Equity

Organizations that are new to the hybrid model — and, perhaps, even those that aren't — should build awareness of the dangers of proximity bias and work with managers to develop internal policies on presence equity. Scott Hitchins, chief marketing officer at Manchester, England-based Interact Software, an enterprise intranet software company, defined presence equity as the idea that every employee, wherever they are, is given equal priority and consideration.

To achieve presence equity, there are different things organizations can do. For instance, office spaces should account for remote workers being present in meeting rooms. “High tech audio and video screens can offset subpar webcams and sound,” Hitchins said.

Leaders should also consider the current state of their collaborative workflows and tools to ensure that everyone has the same access to information.

Related Article: Worried About the Hybrid Workplace? Follow the Data

2. Create a Remote-first Culture 

Since proximity bias exists when office employees are given preferential treatment, Du Bey said implementing a remote-first culture can help ensure the team continually seeks equality of opportunity.

This can mean promoting asynchronous ways of working by leveraging digital collaboration tools, the cloud or an intranet portal, and turning online forums and virtual chatrooms into the "town square" of the company rather than prioritizing face-to-face communication. 

Related Article: A Step-By-Step Guide to Asynchronous Collaboration

3. Leverage Virtual Meetings

Daily huddles or all-hands-on-deck meetings are common practice. Companies seeking to succeed in a hybrid model should retain the virtual aspects of these meetings, even when some are in-office. That may mean having everyone join in from their computers.

“For folks who are attending a meeting in person, if others are joining remotely, have everyone on their laptop so remote folks can still hear well and see everyone’s faces,” said Du Bey. 

These meetings shouldn’t be treated as a formality either, but as an opportunity to answer questions and ensure everyone is on the same page.

“Having a group chat between all employees is helpful as well, as many questions and concerns can be answered in real time and make everyone feel included,” Sullivan said. 

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